It feels like a lifetime has passed since England booked their place at Euro 2020, taking seven wins from eight games and scoring 37 goals in the process.
But the increasing sight of a masked Gareth Southgate sat in the stands of Premier League grounds has brought the international scene back on the agenda. The Three Lions boss has witnessed 17 rounds of top-flight action with another four to go before his squad meet at the end of next month for their opening three World Cup 2022 Qualifiers.
Games against San Marino, Albania and Poland will provide Southgate with another chance to assess those with aspirations of making his 23-man squad for the European Championship in the summer, with the added bonus of the fixtures being played in a competitive environment.
Speaking last August, Southgate said: “I think we’ve had a period of 10 months without a game. During that period there has been various fluctuations in form. Although we had great momentum before the break.
“For every international team that stopped and we’ve got to find a way of restarting with the team, reconnecting with the team and there is competition for places in every position on the pitch.”
The natural break in the football calendar that comes between November and March means that Southgate must reconnect quickly with his team once more, utilising the learnings of the past three international get-togethers. Having experimented in certain areas, a tournament year will bring with it a more focused approach.
Sky Sports pundits Alex Scott, Jamie Redknapp and Micah Richards sat down to assess some of the attacking options that the England boss will be considering ahead of his next squad announcement.
Southgate’s last England squad
Goalkeepers: Dean Henderson, Jordan Pickford, Nick Pope
Defenders: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ben Chilwell, Conor Coady, Eric Dier, Joe Gomez, Reece James, Michael Keane, Harry Maguire, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Tyrone Mings, Bukayo Saka, Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker
Midfielders: Phil Foden, Jordan Henderson, Mason Mount, Declan Rice, James Ward-Prowse, Harry Winks
Forwards: Tammy Abraham, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Jack Grealish, Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling
Will England change formation?
A lot has happened since the squad last met in November, but how far will Southgate now go in leaving the door open for new ideas to be trialled?
The wealth of attacking options could lend itself to a change of system, where Southgate’s recently preferred 3-4-3 formation could be adapted to accommodate another creative player.
There is competition for places in virtually every position barring Harry Kane’s place as the focal point of the side, but the striker’s recent absence through injury served as a reminder to Southgate of the need for a working Plan B.
Redknapp said: “If Gareth Southgate was naming his starting team with a back four, the only one that starts among the attacking midfielders right now is Mason Mount, with the way that he plays. Because I think he’ll go with Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling.
“It looks like he wants to go with Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson as a two. The one ahead will be Mount. If I’m James Maddison, the best chance that he’s got is if Gareth decides to play Mount in a deeper position. That way, we might be able to get an extra attacking midfielder in there.
“It feels really unfair if Maddison isn’t picked in the 23 when you look at how he has played this season as he’s so talented but it shows you the abundance of quality we have.”
Do England need two holding midfielders?
England have arranged international friendlies with Austria and Romania ahead of Euro 2020, meaning Southgate has just five games to work with ahead of the first group encounter with Croatia on June 13.
Based on the current FIFA world rankings, it will be England’s toughest group assignment ahead of matches with Scotland and Czech Republic. The need for so much protective cover has been questioned by Richards.
“Why do we need to be so defensive with two holding midfielders? Jack Grealish, Maddison, Phil Foden, Mount – they all like to receive the ball on the half-turn. We’re so blessed with talent we’ve not seen for years in terms of technical ability.
“For one of these players to miss out by us having a more defensive player in there, it doesn’t sit right with me. I’m not saying they all should start, but they should all be in the 23.
“Grealish has cemented himself in the squad if fit after the Belgium game. I don’t think you can ignore that.”
Can space be found for Maddison?
Southgate’s acknowledgment last summer of the ‘various fluctuations in form’ can most certainly be applied to Maddison, who has grown in stature as Leicester have flown under the radar to perch in the Premier League’s top four.
There is a heightened maturity to the former Norwich midfielder, but whereas a previously perceived arrogance might have stood in his way of progress with England, Scott believes a more tactical element could obstruct his international ascent.
“I think the only question mark Southgate might have over Maddison is when you look at how Harry Kane has played this season,” she said. “He has been really dropping off the front line, into spaces that Maddison likes to occupy.”
“But what great healthy competition. They’re looking at the other performing well and looking inwardly to themselves thinking they need to up their own game. It’s what you do when no one else is looking that counts, so the extra training, the analysing your own game to push yourself onto that next level.”
Richards believes a case can be made to take an additional attacking midfielder in place of a more recognised striker as part of the final 23-man squad.
“It’s a tough call,” he countered. “Phil Foden arguably had the hardest job getting into the Manchester City team. Jack Grealish was playing as part of a team that nearly got relegated last year. Maddison and Mount are playing with top players every week. They’ve all got different attributes.
“I personally would take them all. If you leave one of those players out come the Euros, there’s going to be uproar anyway because the talent there is incredible. Mount can play a little bit deeper, as can Grealish.”
How attacking quartet came to the fore
Foden’s coming-of-age performance during Manchester City’s 4-1 win at Liverpool this month was the latest sign that he is ready to take the international stage by storm. It would appear that England’s most creative talents are thriving off one another in a bid to be the name on everyone’s lips.
Speaking after Leicester’s 2-0 victory over Chelsea last month, Maddison told Sky Sports how a piece of analysis by Jamie Carragher on Monday Night Football triggered a response within him to improve on his productivity.
Comparisons being drawn between England counterparts is nothing new.
“It was the same in my day when I was up against the Manchester United players,” said Redknapp. “If you play well, the next day the papers would be saying you should be in the England squad. It’s the same when these players are now facing each other.
“It has been billed as a little battle. A couple of weeks ago, Maddison faced Mount, and Maddison came out on top, he was the better player on the day, scored and we were all talking about him afterwards. That’s what you need.
“Sometimes, you may be playing well but you’re not scoring. Then, you get a scruffy goal and people start talking. You’ve got to be a bit greedy, you’ve got to look after yourself, and I think that’s what James Maddison has analysed.
“You’ve got to get numbers and you’ve got to score goals because people then start to talk about you. Out of all the players in that group to get into the England squad, he’s the one that’s the most under pressure. He has got the talent, but he is in competition with Grealish, Mount and Phil Foden.
“They’ve made those steps playing for England that he hasn’t quite done so yet. But I’m a big fan of Maddison.”
Like Maddison, Mount has been a consistent performer for Chelsea and the arrival of Thomas Tuchel has led to him taking on more responsibilities, as seen last weekend as he strode forward to take his side’s penalty in the 1-1 draw with Southampton. Such poise from 12 yards offers another string to his bow, and will no doubt be important again for England this summer.
Grealish was absent against Leicester with a leg injury but the Aston Villa midfielder is not expected to be out for long. Having set such high standards earlier in the season, his form has slightly dropped off in his last four matches but he remains at the forefront of Southgate’s mind, according to Redknapp.
“Let’s not beat around the bush – Gareth was doing everything in his power not to play Jack Grealish,” Redknapp said. “He didn’t fancy him at all. He then played him against Belgium, and he just ripped it up and made us all fall in love with watching England.
“I don’t want Gareth Southgate to go there and be safe. I want him to take risks and to play the likes of Jack Grealish. I want him to get these types of players in the team. For too many World Cups and European Championships we’ve been too safe. I feel Jack has to play.”
Scott added: “Grealish has changed Southgate’s opinion of him – and that’s what you need to do. I remember my manager saying at Arsenal that you need to make sure you’re playing well for your club first, and that’s precisely what he has done.
“He’s the go-to player for Villa. The way he drives at players is what you want with England. Teams are now doubling up on him, and if this happens with England, it will free up other players as well.”
Does Saka have a strong case for inclusion?
The England manager’s past few squads will certainly inform any decisions regarding personnel.
Ben Chilwell finds himself suddenly out of favour under new Chelsea head coach Thomas Tuchel, but he was the only natural left-back in Southgate’s November selection, with Bukayo Saka, Kieran Trippier and Ainsley Maitland-Niles included as options capable of covering more than one position.
It will be interesting to see if Southgate calls upon Saka for the same reasons this time given the form he has shown during Arsenal’s winter resurgence.
Scott argued: “When you’re trying to free up spaces in a World Cup or Euros squad, it’s two for every position. Saka is someone who can play in three positions. He can play in attacking positions, he can play left wing-back.
“That would allow Gareth not to take another defensive player, and that’s where you can start to try to fit people in.”
Who could be the wildcard choice?
With so many exciting attacking midfield options, Southgate may reconsider the number of strikers he takes with him into the tournament.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin has impressed for England and was seen as a viable alternative to Kane during the autumn, while Danny Ings and Tammy Abraham have also been called up in previous squads.
Patrick Bamford has made the step-up in class from the Championship for Leeds with 12 Premier League goals so far, and Micah Richards believes the striker deserves the chance to showcase his talent with the national team.
“I’m going to throw in Bamford,” he said. “He’s left-footed, he can drop deep and score goals.”
When asked if he would take Bamford over Ollie Watkins or Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Richards added: “Bamford just offers something a little bit different when you watch the way he moves and makes runs. I’d just throw him in there as I feel he has been a revelation.
Redknapp believes places remain up for grabs, and believes Maddison isn’t the only player at Leicester that will have caught Southgate’s eye.
“What a season Harvey Barnes has had,” he said. “I’d like to see one or two more assists but his goal output has been tremendous. He’ll be thinking he can get into the England squad if he has another push between now and the end of the season.
“Mason Greenwood is a player who has all the talent in the world, but right now – with four goals and four assists – he’s not at the same level as some of the other players in the list for his position.
“He’ll be in a straight fight with Jadon Sancho. I wouldn’t say Jadon is a wildcard, as he has been in the England squad. Borussia Dortmund’s form doesn’t really help him but he has been playing with Erling Haaland. In terms of talent and ability, Sancho’s got it all.”
When and where is Euro 2020?
The 16th UEFA European Championship runs from June 11 to July 11, 2021, and to celebrate the tournament’s 60th birthday, 12 cities across the continent have been selected as hosts. The 12 cities and stadiums are:
- Amsterdam (Netherlands) – Johan Cruyff Arena
- Baku (Azerbaijan) – Olympic Stadium
- Bilbao (Spain) – San Mames
- Bucharest (Romania) – Arena Nationala
- Budapest (Hungary) – Puskas Arena
- Copenhagen (Denmark) – Parken Stadium
- Dublin (Republic of Ireland) – Aviva Stadium
- Glasgow (Scotland) – Hampden Park
- London (England) – Wembley Stadium
- Munich (Germany) – Allianz Arena
- Rome (Italy) – Stadio Olimpico
- Saint Petersburg (Russia) – Krestovsky Stadium
Rome’s Stadio Olimpico will host the opening match on June 11, while England’s national stadium Wembley will stage both semi-finals and the final.
As a result of the pan-European staging, no nation has been granted an automatic spot, with all 55 teams taking part in the qualification process.
The Euro 2020 group draw
- Group A: Italy, Switzerland, Turkey, Wales
- Group B: Belgium, Russia, Denmark, Finland
- Group C: Ukraine, Netherlands, Austria, North Macedonia
- Group D: England, Croatia, Czech Republic, Scotland
- Group E: Spain, Poland, Sweden, Slovakia
- Group F: Germany, France, Portugal, Hungary
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