Jamie Vardy, Ashley Young boost stock, centre-back questions persist in England draw
LONDON -- Three thoughts from Wembley on England's 1-1 draw with Italy in England's final friendly before the provisional World Cup squad is released in May.
1. Fringe players rise, fall
Two friendlies against the faded aristocracy of European football, a win and a draw, and Gareth Southgate will probably enter the last few weeks before he names his England World Cup squad with a sense of quiet satisfaction.
The result was almost an afterthought, but it's the progression of his team that will please Southgate, more than the 1-1 draw with Italy. Jamie Vardy had given England the lead, before VAR once again encroached into our collective conscious to (correctly) award a penalty to Italy, converted by Lorenzo Insigne.
But for England this was a game with more positives than negatives, and one in which several players either strengthened their cases for a seat on the plane to Russia, demanded they be included in the starting XI or simply emphasised the excellence they have shown throughout the season.
Vardy fell into the middle of those three categories, as did Jesse Lingard, and the two combined nicely to put England ahead in the first half. Raheem Sterling was fouled, Lingard's wits were quicker than some dithering Italian defenders as he took a quick free kick and released Vardy, who lashed into the roof of the net.
Kyle Walker, selected again as one of three centre-backs, was named man of the match but Raheem Sterling was superb and arguably the man who most furthered his case the most was Ashley Young. He was excellent on the left and later on the right, showing the sort of versatility that is always useful in a tournament squad.
The caveat there is Young would probably have been sent off in a competitive game. In the first half, he somehow escaped a booking for a violent foul on Davide Zappacosta, then was given a yellow card after he rolled back onto the pitch, having tweaked his knee while tumbling off it.
Debutant James Tarkowski probably didn't further his cause much: his general play was fine after a slightly shaky start, but it was he who gave away the late penalty. The referee initially dismissed claims from Italy after Federico Chiesa tumbled in the area, but having consulted the replays via VAR he saw Tarkowski had clumsily stepped on the Fiorentina forward's foot.
Ultimately though, that won't be a huge concern for Southgate after a productive international break.
2. Vardy makes case to start alongside Kane
It almost feels heretical to even think that Harry Kane might not start England's first game at the World Cup, assuming he is fit. This is the one talent that virtually every other country in Russia would covet, something England are not used to having in recent years, so to leave him out would be ludicrous.
All that said, Jamie Vardy is making an extremely compelling case for inclusion, underlined by his ruthless and emphatic finish to give England the lead. That was Vardy's 10 goal in his last 15 starts for club and country and a striker in that sort of form is tricky to ignore.
Probably the greatest shame for Gareth Southgate regarding Kane's absence from these two games is that he didn't have a chance to try both men in either friendly. A big plus of this 3-5-2 system that now seems inked in for the summer is that it would allow a strike partnership, and the Kane-Vardy duo is an extremely useful option, at the very least.
In reality though, it looks like Plan A will be Raheem Sterling, who was once again outstanding, making England's lack of a traditional playmaker a side-issue with his inventive play and excellent link-ups with Jesse Lingard.
But all of this certainly falls into the category of "good problems" for Southgate: up front he is left with some tricky decisions, but for good reasons rather than simply selecting the marginally better of various mediocrities.
3. Is centre-back England's biggest concern position
Probably the most interesting selection of England's two friendlies has been Kyle Walker, played both times on the right of a back three.
You could read this innovation one of two ways. It could be a sign of Gareth Southgate's faith in Walker's adaptability, and the importance of having more pace in that backline. Or, it could be that he's so unimpressed with his options among the other available centre-backs that he feels he has to get creative.
It's probably a combination of the two. Either way, England's other two central defenders certainly demonstrated why Southgate has looked outside the box for solutions. John Stones, a player whose mistakes frustrate even more because you know how talented he is, was caught in possession in the first half and allowed Ciro Immobile a free header from which he should definitely have scored.
James Tarkowski eventually settled into solidity, but he made some errors early on in the game that may have been punished by a more ruthless side, the sort that England will face in the summer, and then of course there was the penalty.
Defence is the area of Southgate's team with the most questions: the identity of his first-choice goalkeeper is uncertain, as are his starting centre-backs, who with the odd exception are unused to playing in this formation.
With that in mind, one still wonders, despite his lack of playing time for Chelsea, whether there's a chance that Gary Cahill might earn a recall before the summer, simply because he's used to playing on the left of a back three.
Still, the good news for Southgate is that the Walker experiment has shown promise, at least.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.