World Cup 2018: Problems England boss Gareth Southgate needs to solve
England manager Gareth Southgate's squad for friendlies in the Netherlands and at home to Italy has an experimental look - but preparations for Russia are entering the red zone with less than 90 days to the World Cup.
Southgate's selection is understandably designed to study all options but also hints at serious issues he must still resolve before England's opening group match against Tunisia on 18 June in Volgograd.
In short - he needs some answers from the two forthcoming matches because England do not play again until 2 June.
So what are the areas that will be causing Southgate and England greatest concern as the countdown to Russia continues?
|England pre-World Cup friendlies|
|Netherlands||Fri, 23 March (19:45 GMT)||Johan Cruyff Arena|
|Italy||Tue, 27 March (20:00 BST)||Wembley Stadium|
|Nigeria||Sat, 2 June (17:15 BST)||Wembley Stadium|
|Costa Rica||Thu, 7 June (20:00 BST)||Elland Road Stadium|
Who will play in goal?
As Joe Hart's star fades after three major tournaments as England's first-choice goalkeeper, it is hardly the ideal situation that such a key position in Southgate's team is still up for grabs.
And it is a sign of the current uncertainty that Hart, past his best and excluded from West Ham United's team for large parts of this season on loan at London Stadium from Manchester City, is included as one of four keepers for the two friendlies.
Confusion over the goalkeeper at a major tournament rarely ends well - as Fabio Capello discovered when he started with Robert Green in South Africa in 2010, only for him to make the mistake that gifted USA's Clint Dempsey an equaliser in the opening game, squandering two points. David James started their next match against Algeria.
Hart actually started the last friendly, the goalless draw with Brazil at Wembley in November, when he became the first England goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet against the South Americans since Peter Shilton in June 1984.
The 30-year-old, however, has been marginalised at club level since and was dropped for 15 Premier League games before returning - with an error - in the 3-0 home defeat by Burnley on 10 March. Hart has played only 15 league matches this season, conceding 33 goals and keeping just three clean sheets.
Hart's inclusion is a sign of Southgate's continued faith but it would represent a huge gamble to start with a keeper who is under-cooked, has been out of form and favour and has been undistinguished at his past two tournaments, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and 2016 European Championship in France.
And another sign of concern over the role may have led Southgate to the other end of the scale - with the inclusion of Burnley's 25-year-old in-form, though rookie in this context, Nick Pope.
He got his chance at Turf Moor after an injury to Tom Heaton, another who had forced himself into the England frame and who is almost fit again after a shoulder injury.
Pope only made his Premier League debut on 17 September at home to Crystal Palace, but has impressed enough to be rewarded with inclusion by Southgate after 27 games in which he has conceded only 22 goals and kept 10 clean sheets.
He has, according to data specialists Opta, not made any errors that have led to goals.
Could he make a late bolt for England's World Cup squad? Conceivably - but it would take a giant leap of the imagination to see him near a starting place.
Pope's sudden emergence, however, only puts England's goalkeeping conundrum into sharper focus.
This leaves two young goalkeepers of great promise - though also unproven at international level - as prime contenders if Southgate does not take the Hart gamble.
Jordan Pickford, 24, has been a shining light in Everton's dismal campaign since his £30m summer move from Sunderland. He has comfortably been their player of the season and enjoyed an outstanding England debut in the 0-0 draw with Germany at Wembley in November.
It has been a tough season, though, for both Pickford and Stoke's 25-year-old Jack Butland and hardly a serene route to Russia.
In 59 league games for Everton and Stoke City, Pickford and Butland have conceded 101 goals and only kept 12 clean sheets between them - although they can hardly be held responsible for their teams' respective struggles.
Both have had their form scrutinised closely in recent weeks - Pickford after Everton's loss at Burnley and Butland after an own goal at Leicester City and a mistake for Cenk Tosun's winner when the two keepers were in direct opposition on Saturday.
With the World Cup just weeks away, Southgate will surely be desperate for one to make the concrete case to be number one.
Where has the old guard gone? The great big hole in defence
England's central defenders for the friendly double - we will include Liverpool's Joe Gomez in this number although he operates at right-back for his club - boasts a grand total of 27 caps.
And 22 of those have been won by John Stones, who has not been a regular for Manchester City in recent times. Gomez has two, while Leicester's Harry Maguire has three.
If goalkeeper is a position preying on Southgate's mind, then form, formation and personnel in central defence is another urgent matter in the manager's in-tray at St George's Park.
The presence of two newcomers - 25-year-old James Tarkowski of Burnley and Swansea City's Alfie Mawson, 24 - is testimony to the questions still to be answered in that position.
Gary Cahill, at 32, has been a mainstay of Southgate's short time in charge, but he is not in the latest squad and has also been ousted from Chelsea's team.
Stones, still only 23, started the season well but has been unable to displace Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi after uncertain form following a hamstring injury - although he will be a certain World Cup starter.
Cahill has figured in only 21 of Chelsea's league games and Stones 16 of City's. The latter has played only 1,143 minutes of Premier League football this season. Southgate will want them more battle-hardened before then.
Chris Smalling is out of favour and not regarded as comfortable enough in possession at international level, while his Manchester United team-mate Phil Jones is battling injury once more before re-stating his claim.
Everton's Michael Keane was another with strong claims but he has struggled since his £30m move from Burnley and there is irony that Tarkowski, his replacement in the team at Turf Moor, has now taken his place in the England squad.
Southgate plans to play a three-man central defence supported by wing-backs in Russia but his final cast list is nowhere near being a certainty, with Tottenham's Eric Dier a contender to slot in.
England have found themselves brutally exposed defensively at the elite tournaments, notably against Italy and Uruguay at the 2014 World Cup and time is now running out for Southgate's favoured, experienced players to find form.
Manchester City's Kyle Walker is a certainty at right-back but the other flank is wide open, with Manchester United's Ashley Young making a late charge after being successfully converted into a defensive wing-back by manager Jose Mourinho.
Luke Shaw, Young's United team-mate, was regarded as the long-term occupant of the left-back position but serious injury, plus the complete breakdown of his relationship with Mourinho, has put paid to that.
Danny Rose was in pole position for a long time, but he has been displaced by Ben Davies at Spurs and has played only 529 minutes of Premier League football this season.
Ryan Bertrand has played 2,425 minutes, albeit in a Southampton team that has struggled desperately - so this is a position that is certainly open to be claimed.
Southgate could do with someone who will be a key component of him team stepping up to the mark and stating a compelling case to start in Russia.
Is anyone a certainty in midfield?
If Tottenham's Dele Alli can be pencilled in for the number 10 role behind a three-man attack, central midfield is another area of Southgate's team about which he will still be doing some serious deliberation.
Much depends on whether he goes with a three-man central defence but again there are serious question marks over those who will be fighting for that starting position and places in the squad.
Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson and Spurs' Dier have often formed an unimaginative midfield duo - and it is a sign of Southgate's search for creativity that Arsenal's Jack Wilshere has been rewarded for glimpses of form with a recall, having last played in the Iceland debacle at Euro 2016.
Adam Lallana is also included despite a 'blink and you'll miss it' season at Liverpool as he struggles to overcome a thigh injury. He has been a standout performer at international level and would certainly be in Southgate's plans if fully fit, but he has played a token 214 minutes in the Premier League this season - the least of all the squad.
Wilshere, 26, has only played 1,013 minutes, so this is a pair who could certainly fall into the category of under-cooked, but the Arsenal man has shown enough to convince Southgate he may yet make a contribution.
Henderson has only figured in 20 Liverpool league games this season because of injury, although Dier, in contrast, has the heavy workload of 2,468 minutes, with Alli just behind on 2,452.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has had something of a renaissance at Anfield since his £35m move from Arsenal but remains totally unproven in a central midfield role at international level, especially at a World Cup.
So much depends on Southgate's final formation but this is another area of England's World Cup blueprint that appears nowhere near being signed off.
A razor-sharp attacking edge - at the moment
England's attacking threat contains raw pace, skill and goals - but one incident highlighted how fragile such optimism can be.
When Harry Kane, who will surely be captain in Russia, went down clutching his ankle in a challenge with Bournemouth goalkeeper Asmir Begovic during Tottenham's 4-1 win at Vitality Stadium on 11 March, there was a sharp intake of breath from everyone with England's World Cup interests at heart.
Kane is out for a month and misses the friendlies. And while he is expected to return in good time for Russia, Southgate is unlikely to rest easy until he sees his attacking talisman, marksman and a man approaching world class back doing what he does best.
If Kane is fit, he is England unquestioned spearhead.
A fit Kane flanked by the pace and ability of Manchester United's Marcus Rashford and Manchester City's Raheem Sterling gives Southgate potent weaponry.
He can add Jesse Lingard, United's precocious scorer of wonder goals and provider of high speed, to that attack, along with Leicester's Jamie Vardy, whose pace could make him a highly significant impact substitute.
Sterling, in particular, is having the sort of season that offers serious hope he can put the nightmare of Euro 2016 behind him - struggles reflected in his "The Hated One" Instagram post the day after he was so heavily criticised for his performance in England's opening draw against Russia in Marseille.
He is now looking the full package and if Southgate can tap into how Pep Guardiola has transformed Sterling's confidence and brought out the obvious quality, then England could be in business.
If the manager gets a clean bill of health for his strike force between now and the end of the season, and 20-year-old Rashford can enjoy even more game time at Old Trafford, then England will carry a genuine threat in Russia.
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My England starting XI
Gareth Southgate's England are running out of games before the World Cup in 2018. Choose who you would pick in their starting XI in Russia - and then share it with your friends using our team selector.
|International friendly: Netherlands v England|
|Venue: Amsterdam Arena, Amsterdam Date: Friday, 23 March Time: 19:45 GMT|
|Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live, online, tablets, mobiles and BBC Sport app. Live text commentary on the BBC Sport website.|