Thursday 22 February 2018

Stones set for England midfield role as Southgate backs Hart

John Stones. Photo: GETTY
John Stones. Photo: GETTY Sportsdesk

Gareth Southgate has claimed that Joe Hart remains England's first-choice goalkeeper, but he has ramped up the pressure on him by revealing that Jack Butland will play the second-half of tonight's friendly against France and Tom Heaton the first.

The England manager also confirmed that he had been experimenting with John Stones in central midfield during the squad's training sessions.

With Eric Dier suspended for the next World Cup qualifier away to Malta on September 1 because of his booking against Scotland last Saturday, Stones could be used in midfield at some point against France with that game in mind.

Southgate is also considering reverting to a back three which showed encouraging signs in the friendly with Germany.

Harry Kane will again captain England, in a clear sign that he will take the role permanently. Butland and the injured Jordan Henderson are his main challengers.

It will also be the first game England have played using the Video Assistant Referee system.

Hart appeared at fault for both of Scotland's goals. He was slow to react to Leigh Griffiths' free-kicks and those errors have sharpened the focus on the keeper, who is looking for a new club with his loan at Torino having ended and there being no place for him at Manchester City.

Asked who his first-choice goalkeeper is, Southgate replied: "Joe Hart. Next season we don't know who will be playing at which club, who will be in form, but Joe has been excellent for us. The goals on Saturday were the first he'd conceded in qualifying, and we owe him for Slovenia (Hart made a superb save to preserve a draw).

"That said, I don't want anyone to feel completely comfortable. We want competition for places."

Stones was left out of the Scotland match because, Southgate said, he had not featured "for seven weeks" for Manchester City.

He will start against France, but the question of where he plays is intriguing, with Southgate claiming: "John has all the attributes to play as a holding midfield player."

France v England, Live ITV 8.0

Irish Independent

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