Skip to content

Deep-diving into England’s second striker selection dilemma

By Joshua Hall

With the 2022 World Cup right around the corner the nation eagerly awaits Gareth Southgate’s imminent squad announcement. The unprecedented nature of a mid-season winter World Cup has meant there’s plenty of questions regarding Southgate’s squad.

There’s one question that hasn’t had an answer since the 2018 World Cup, however, and that’s the question of who England’s second striker should be? It’s obvious that nation’s beloved captain and golden boy Harry Kane will be Southgate’s first choice and rightfully so, but with a tight schedule and increased chance of injury there has to be a defined second choice. 

Barring an uncharacteristic surprise from Gareth Southgate it’s fair to assume the candidates to play second fiddle to Kane could be narrowed down to five options. Tammy Abraham, Ivan Toney, Callum Wilson, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Ollie Watkins.

The first and most obvious way in which to compare the five is to simply look at their individual goal threat. In order to do this it’s best to look at their ability to get into good goal scoring situations and then their ability to convert those chances into goals. For this instance Penalties have been removed as the question is about their influence in open play. All the data is taken from the player’s league appearances this season to reflect both the level of consistency required to succeed in league football and their current form heading into the World Cup. This follows the popular belief within tournament football to field the players who are currently thriving.

Figure 1.

As can be seen in figure 1, Harry Kane is not just the only player to be outperforming his expected goals, but has also scored more goals than any other player. Both Roma forward, Abraham, and Newcastle’s Wilson are getting into better goal scoring positions more frequently than Kane, but both have failed to convert these chances with the same aplomb as the England captain. 

Watkins, Toney and Calvert-Lewin are all some way behind the others in terms of their ability to get into those positions. Ivan Toney, however, is scoring at an almost identical rate to that of which he is expected to – an important feat in a World Cup with chances being of such amplified importance. Callum Wilson also offers this level of efficiency.

Harry Kane is now just three goals off breaking the all-time top scorer record for England, currently held by Wayne Rooney, and has done so by scoring 51 goals in just 75 games. A whopping 31.37% of these goals have come from the penalty spot though. On top of this England have taken part in a penalty shoot-out in five of the last eight major tournaments they took part in, winning just one of those. For these reason is seems necessary to compare the strikers goal scoring ability from 12-yards too. If you factor in the penalty scoring prowess of each player this season then you can compare their expected goals and goals scored in general. This gives the results shown in Figure 2. 

Figure 2.

Once these factors are put into play its only Harry Kane, Ivan Toney and Callum Wilson who have stats that have changed as they have taken penalties for their sides this season. Toney has managed to overachieve against his expected goals when penalties are including due to his extremely impressive record from the spot. The Bee’s leading man has never missed a Premier League penalty kick and even cited thinking of “being on a beach with a cocktail” in a recent interview as a reason for his success.

Gareth Southgate may be attracted by Callum Wilson’s 0.72xG per 90 shown in Figure 2. This is a rate which has currently only been bettered by the formidable Erling Haaland in the Premier League this season. Meaning Wilson is the second most effective forward in the league at putting himself in goalscoring positions and with an equally impressive conversion rate he may become a serious consideration for the England boss.

Southgate has led England to both a World Cup semi-final and a European Championship final using Harry Kane as more than just a target man though, despite the Spurs man winning the Golden Boot in Russia. Southgate likes his forward to be able to knit together play and offer himself up as both a creator and a finisher. To combine these two attributes one of the best stats to look at is shot creating actions. This is the two offensive actions directly leading to a shot, such as passes, dribbles and drawing fouls. The shot taker also receives credit for these actions allowing you to combine these two vital aspects of a Southgate striker’s game. Over the past year in all competitions Kane is one of the leading player in Europe’s top five leagues at this metric, hence why he is so effective within Southgate’s system. Figure 3 shows the comparison of Southgate’s options when it comes to shot creating actions in their respective leagues this season.

Figure 3.

Up until this point its been clear that as far as goalscoring threat both Ivan Toney and Callum Wilson were obvious contenders to secure the secondary role behind Kane, but they both fall significantly short of the skipper’s numbers when it comes to combining creativity. Tammy Abraham excels in this field and its no surprise with him being a hold up player who likes to play with pacy wingers off him. Ollie Watkins too has an impressive number of actions here with the Villa frontman managing three assists already this season. 

Ivan Toney is the only player who can be considered truly effective at both goalscoring opportunities and knitting the play together, however this creates another headache for Southgate for a few different reasons. Firstly Toney is the only of the five options being discussed that is yet to a shoulder the weight of the England badge with zero caps to his name at any level. Secondly Southgate may be wanting an option that differs to Kane in a fashion that allows him to mix things up utilising his substitutions in a scorching hot Qatar. Toney cannot offer as diverse of a skill set as others on the list. Finally and perhaps the most fickle of the reasons is that the 26-year-old is currently under investigation by the FA for betting on football over the last six months. With Southgate often prioritising the team spirit and protecting the dynamic of the squad he may not see this as a welcome distraction. 

Callum Wilson offers the option of a player with very different characteristics to Harry Kane and would allow the England boss to go for a more direct approach if he was to take part in the Middle East. Southgate has a big decision to make and in the end it’ll boil down to if he wishes to choose one of the players he has often resorted to, disregarding current form, or if he will take a risk on Wilson or Toney who have both excelled this season, but haven’t shown it on the international stage in a long time if at all. The appeal of Toney’s tremendous penalty record may be too enticing for the man in charge, but it’s also hard to look past the dynamism of an in-form Callum Wilson.

What do you think?