England boss Gareth Southgate admits the team which started the friendly with Nigeria at Wembley isn’t far from the one which might start the World Cup opener against Tunisia.
But he insists places are still up for grabs in the run up to Russia, and, drawing on experience as a player and coach with the Undef 21s, he knows a lot can happen in the last fortnight before the tournament.
Nick Pope is generally regarded as England’s third choice keeper, and is yet to make his Three Lions bow ahead of the final friendly at Elland Road against Costa Rica on Thursday.
Jordan Pickford started against the Super Eagles, with Jack Butland likely to be next in line, but Southgate says there is still all to play for.
He said after the 2-1 win over Nigeria: “I think we’ve been pretty clear for a fair while, but there is real competition for places in certain areas of the pitch.
“Everyone has to maintain their level, the team we picked today, from my experience of weeks leading into the first game of a tournament and the first couple of games, is that that will evolve with various different things, everyone has to be ready to come into the side.
“I wouldn’t necessarily be saying the team that started today is the team that starts against Tunisia, but clearly it might not be far away.”
Southgate felt the first half showing, as goals from former Claret Gary Cahill and Harry Kane fired England into a 2-0 lead, was as good as they have performed under his stewardship: “I think I was really pleased with the first half, it was an excellent performance with the ball, really good movement and interchange of play with the front four, we managed to overload midfield, and when Harry or Raheem came short, Dele and Jesse made some fantastic runs in behind. We didn’t always find them or see them, but there was a lot of unselfish one and two touch play that really pleased me.
“We also won the ball back quickly, and played from back with good composure. So that was as good a half as we’ve had.”
Nigeria pulled one back through Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi early in the second half, but England claimed the win, and Southgate added: “Second half, it was easy to say we were complacent, but I don’t think that was the case, it took time to get to grips with their change of system, we didn’t quite work out their midfield quickly enough, they had a long passage of possession, got in behind us, we were a bit slow to react, 2-1 and it was a really good test from then on.
“It could have gone against us for a brief spell, but we got through that period, got our composure and still caused problems with the ball. We didn’t concede any real clear chances. In general we can improve, we have to learn from that five-six minute spell, because that could be enough to put you out in a tournament, but we were definitely more of a threat on goal than in previous matches.”
And he added: “I was pleased with the performance, we are improving as a team, that happened again today, we transferred our training into the match, physically looked in good condition, the contribution of the substitutes was good, so it was good exercise and another step in the right direction in terms of building belief in this group of players.”