IF an international break guarantees one thing, it’s debate about England’s best XI.
But what if we simplified that debate, by selecting players based only on their statistical output so far this season? It would certainly make Gareth Southgate’s life a lot easier.
At Opta we have a player rating system that rewards players based on performance in a number of categories, including shooting, passing and defending. Our secret formula works out which players are performing best based on this data and this data alone.
So what does England’s best XI look like if we run the numbers for the season so far?
The model’s choice of goalkeeper is Nick Pope.
Pope has kept five clean sheets in the Premier League this season, the joint-most of any England-qualified goalkeeper along with Sam Johnstone. That’s to be expected given he plays for a fine-tuned Newcastle team, but Opta’s expected goals model also predicts that Pope has conceded around 1.5 goals fewer than the average goalkeeper would have conceded if they had faced the exact same shots.
Pope is also capable of covering space behind England’s high line, leading all England-qualified goalkeepers for sweeping actions (10).
Back up goalkeeper: Jordan Pickford
In at right-back we have the tried and tested defensive behemoth that is Kyle Walker.
Walker has played an interesting role for Manchester City this season, essentially covering the entire right-hand side of the pitch, playing right-wing in possession but right-back or centre-back when defending. That’s why he leads all Manchester City players for the number of times he’s regained possession of the ball in the defensive third this season (35), while trailing only Rodri for passes completed in the attacking third (189).
Walker is 33 years of age, but he doesn’t seem to be slowing down, and his recovery pace continues to be a get-out-of-jail-free card that is always ready to be cashed in on the big stage.
In central defence we have Marc Guéhi and Fikayo Tomori, two Cobham success stories that have had to leave Chelsea to grow their careers.
Guéhi forms part of a Crystal Palace defence that has kept the joint-most clean sheets in the Premier League this season (5), along with Arsenal and Newcastle. His co-anchor Joachim Andersen often receives plaudits for his long range passing, but Guéhi’s calm and control in possession has resulted in him attaining the best passing accuracy of any Crystal Palace player (89.7%). He nonetheless still performs his defensive duties, leading all teammates for blocks (12).
Tomori has seen great success in Italy, winning the league with Milan in 2021-22 while being voted into Serie A’s team of the year. Despite that, he’s always been somewhat off the radar when it comes to conversation around England centre-backs, and has earned only four caps to date.
Tomori has the most touches (955) and the most successful passes (769) of any centre-back in Serie A this season, while only three centre-backs have more ball carries (187).
We’re going to cheat a little bit with our left-back selection, placing Kieran Trippier on that side, given Southgate is prone to putting him out there when Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell are unavailable, and sometimes even when they’re fit.
Trippier is the creative catalyst for Newcastle, and his numbers continue to prove his quality. Trippier has created the most chances of any player in the Premier League this season (33), while only Pedro Neto (7) has more assists than the Newcastle full-back (6).
This is no flash in the pan, with Trippier also creating the second most chances of any player in the Premier League last season (110), behind Bruno Fernandes (119).
Trippier deserves to be on the pitch.
Back up defenders: Ben White, Craig Dawson, Harry Maguire and Tyrick Mitchell
At the base of the midfield is none other than Declan Rice, who has seamlessly slotted into Arsenal’s fluid operation and can be considered one of the very best midfielders on the planet.
Rice is essentially a player with no weaknesses, contributing to every phase of play for Arsenal while also stepping up in the big moments, as evidenced by his goals against Manchester United and Chelsea.
Rice has the most combined tackles and interceptions of any Arsenal player this season (40), while he also leads all teammates for the number of sequences of play he has initiated that have resulted in a shot (14).
Alongside Rice is James Ward-Prowse, the man who has attempted to fill the void left by Rice in West Ham’s midfield. Rice is essentially irreplaceable, but Ward-Prowse’s transfer has been a huge success for the Hammers.
Ward-Prowse has the most assists of any Premier League player in all competitions this season (9), aided by his incredible and potentially unmatched set piece prowess; only two of his assists have come in open play. He assisted West Ham’s equaliser and winner against Nottingham Forest last time out, both from corners.
But that’s not all he offers – he has also initiated the joint-most shot ending sequences of any player in the Premier League this season (16), alongside Dominik Szoboszlai.
At the tip of the midfield is the man of the moment, Jude Bellingham. There isn’t much to be said of Bellingham that hasn’t been said already, but his leap into superstardom is verging on unprecedented for a midfielder of his age.
He’s been directly involved in the most goals of any midfielder in Europe’s big five leagues in all competitions this season (13 goals, 3 assists). He’s the joint-fastest player to reach 10 goals in LaLiga in the 21st century alongside Robert Lewandowski. He’s the youngest player to score a 90th minute winning goal in the Champions League for Real Madrid. He has already surpassed Zinedine Zidane’s best scoring season in LaLiga.
So it’s fair to say he deserves his place in the best XI.
Back up midfielders: Conor Gallagher, Angel Gomes and James Maddison
The forward line
On the right is Jarrod Bowen, who has had an incredible start to the season for West Ham. Only Erling Haaland (10) has scored more non-penalty goals than Bowen in the Premier League this season, which means no human being has outscored him.
Bowen has scored in all six of West Ham’s away games in the Premier League this term, becoming the first player in Premier League history to score in each of his team’s first six games on the road in a season.
What makes that all the more incredible is that he had scored only four goals in 69 appearances on the road in the competition prior to this season.
On the left is Phil Foden, who admittedly hasn’t been playing in that role for Manchester City this season, but is nonetheless comfortable on that side as evidenced in previous campaigns.
Foden is completing 2.1 dribbles per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season while setting up 1.8 chances per 90 minutes in open play.
He’s also incredibly busy off the ball, with only Erling Haaland (328) making more off-ball runs for Manchester City in the Premier League this campaign than Foden (323).
It’s gone under the radar, but he has been one of the standout players for the league-leaders this season and looks to have finally cemented his place as a guaranteed starter in the City XI.
Up front we have Harry Kane, whose inclusion was never under any doubt. We all knew how good ane was, and no one expected him to struggle in Germany, but his current output is still beyond reasonable expectations.
Kane is the top scoring player in all competitions this season among those who play in Europe’s big five leagues with 21 goals, while thanks to his seven assists he also leads Europe for goals and assists combined (28). He has done all of this in 16 games.
Extraordinarily, with 17 goals in 11 appearances in the Bundesliga, Kane has already outscored last season’s golden boot winners (Nkunku and Füllkrug, 16).
Kane remains untouchable.
Back up forwards: Callum Wilson, Anthony Gordon and Bukayo Saka