Gareth Southgate has got a problem: goalkeepers.
Cast your mind back to the early days of this last qualifying campaign and it was all very different.
Despite coming off the back of a poor Euros, England’s then first choice, Joe Hart, was playing regularly in Italy’s Serie A with Torino. Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford were looking every inch future England number ones with their clubs, Stoke and Sunderland.
Fraser Forster was on the way to a seventh-place finish and a League Cup final appearance at Wembley with Southampton. Tom Heaton was performing miracles helping keep Burnley in the Premier League and, in my mind, unlucky not to have overtaken Hart towards the end of last season. And Nick Pope? Well, he was just a twinkle in Sean Dyche’s eye.
With just three months until the start of the World Cup in Russia, things have got a whole lot more complicated. Hart, on his second loan spell away from Manchester City, lost his form and then his place.
Butland’s development, which looked certain to win him the jersey during this campaign, was halted by major ankle surgery and he hasn’t yet got back to that level.
Of course, Pickford is our horse in this particular race – and the one keeper whose star has continued to rise.
This first season at Everton has been far from a smooth ride. The below-par performances of more experienced players in front of him have contributed to that, and there have been some personal lessons for him along the way too.
But, despite that, his demeanour remains unaffected.
Forster’s form has fallen off a cliff in a struggling Southampton side and he’s seen his place taken by another English keeper, Alex McCarthy, who doesn’t even enter this equation.
Heaton is the most unfortunate of the lot. His shoulder injury ruined his chances of battling it out for top spot and, although now fully fit, he has been surpassed at club and international level by his club-mate Nick Pope.
Pope has come up on the outside from nowhere but deserves to be one of the four keepers selected for this week’s squad as much as anyone.
As a shot-stopper, he has been the outstanding English keeper, with only the majestic David De Gea outperforming him in this aspect.
So what does Southgate do? Well, if the pecking order is dependent on form, then Hart finds himself at the back of the queue. I have a lot of sympathy for Joe though.
He played in every minute of qualifying and will rightly feel that should at least guarantee him his seat on the plane, but his lack of playing time, and his current form after regaining his place at West Ham, is a problem.
If we are having a squad based on merit then Joe’s is a difficult campaign to get behind.
Overall, using stats supplied by analyst Paul Riley (@footballfactman), it should be a race between Pickford and Pope.
From corners, both keepers are twice as likely to come to catch or punch than Butland, and the results are similar when dealing with crosses in open play too.
A big part of the England’s manager’s decision should be focused around the much-discussed DNA of the way England sides should play. To me, this only brings out one winner.
All the four keepers’ clubs play a more direct style, which means playing out from the back isn’t a priority, particularly at Burnley.
Paul’s analysis puts all keepers at a much of a muchness in terms of distribution, but anyone who saw Pickford at the Stadium of Light will testify that he looked the most composed player in the Sunderland side when the ball was at his feet.
He was forever tested by dodgy back passes but never looked under pressure.
The side’s main source of attack at that time was the link between his quick delivery forward to Jermain Defoe and, if England are going to exploit sides who dominate possession of the ball, Pickford could prove to be the key in setting up quick attacks.
And that’s what makes the difference to me.
The inexperience of big tournaments won’t be a problem, whoever plays, but especially not Jordan. You just know he’ll rise to the occasion and not be overawed.
All the keepers should have at least another 100 first-team games each by the time the next Euros comes around. So, if there is no substitute for big tournament experience, then Pickford should be given the chance to get it this year and make sure it isn’t an issue in the future.
Whether the experience is good, bad or indifferent, we’ve got an England No 1 on our hands for a long time yet, not just for Russia 2018.