England is home to millions of wannabe national team managers, as Gareth Southgate knows only too well, and now, with qualification to the Euro 2020 finals sewn up after Thursday night’s7-0 Wembley win over Montenegro, that most popular of pub pursuits can begin in earnest: picking an England XI for the tournament.
What would Southgate do? Well, if the opening group game at Wembley on 14 June were upon him, he would have the lineup in his head. “I think you’d like to have a settled team and, if we had to pick our best team tomorrow, we’d be very clear on what that was,” the manager says.
Southgate’s team, in all likelihood, would look pretty similar to the one he sent out against Montenegro, with the additions being Jordan Henderson, who was suspended, and Raheem Sterling, who was dropped after hiswell-documented confrontation with Joe Gomez.
With Jordan Pickford the undisputed No 1 in goal there is plenty to like about the form of the full-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ben Chilwell, with John Stones, who returned to the lineup after missing the previous two international breaks because of injury, probably in possession of the central defensive slot alongside Harry Maguire.
Southgate sees Henderson as one of the two No 8s in his 4-3-3 system, which he has settled on because of the quality of his options in this position and further forward on the wings. The other starting No 8 would appear to be Mason Mount ahead of Ross Barkley and others, including Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Maddison, with Harry Winks serving as the deep-sitting midfielder or “pivot”, as Southgate is fond of calling the role . Winks is hardly a classic defensive midfielder in terms of stature but Southgate prizes his ability to get the team moving or off the hook with a smart touch or pass.
Perhaps the biggest question concerns the identity of the wide forward who will complement Sterling on the other flank, with Harry Kane, the captain, in the center-forward’s position. It is a fight between Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, although Callum Hudson-Odoi is determined to enter the argument.
This is the picture at present and it will doubtless be good fun – if that is the right expression – to refer back to this article next June because as everybody knows, not least Southgate, the season is long and plenty can change.
“That’s why we’ve always got to keep the squad involved because we could invest in securing an XI and then, come March, three or four could be out injured,” Southgate says. “Oxlade-Chamberlain is the classic example of that.Ahead of the World Cup[in 2018] he was in a really good groove and then he’s out [with knee ligament damage] . The good thing is we’ve got really good options in every position and that’s key because you’ll all remember plenty of tournaments where we’ve had a key injury on the eve of the tournament and then we’ve all been in meltdown. ”
The lineup that Southgate has in mind is youthful, with five players aged 23 or under and only Henderson – at 29 – over 26. “The team against Montenegro was extremely young, the squad is young,” Southgate says. “We’ve got to get the balance right with that but these, in most cases, are our best players. Although next summer is going to be before a lot of them peak, we can still be hugely competitive and our challenge is to be able to compete, as we did in Russia, with a squad that’s very exciting. ”
Southgate’s approach in Russia was to use a 3-5-2, with Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli in the central attacking midfield roles, behind Kane and Sterling and in front of Henderson. Lingard and Alli have fallen from favor, having endured difficult seasons at Manchester United and Tottenham, but the unflashy Henderson, who is not always appreciated by every fan, has adjusted to fit into the current system. Southgate feels the Liverpool captain brings a necessary balance.
“In any team you can’t have 10 Raheems, Jadons and Rashfords without having the glue to piece that team together, the right people to win the ball back – and the leadership and drive that teams need, ”Southgate says. “Liverpool benefit from that with the likes of Henderson and [James] Milner and we’ve got people like [Fabian] Delph, Henderson.
“There’s got to be a grit to the team. We’ve still to improve on that and we’ll need to be finding it when we’re playing the likes of France and Spain and Holland. ”
It was interesting to hear Southgate say that it was a question of “when rather than if” the 19 – year-old Manchester City midfielder Phil Foden breaks into the squad and he added that he had not forgotten about Alli. Nobody expectedEnglandto do anything other than top a straightforward qualifying group but, before Sunday’s final qualifier against Kosovo in Pristina, Southgate has been able to revel in his team’s free-scoring run. Nobody has more goals in the campaign than their 33.
“I used to look at Germany in qualification and they were racking up sixes and sevens and we used to be struggling to break down teams,” Southgate says. “We’ve solved that problem and now we’ve got to solve the different sorts of problems that come with the higher-ranked opponents. That’s the challenge of the next few months. ”
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