International football returns next week and whilst the first order of business for Europe’s national team bosses will be getting points on the board in World Cup qualifying, manager’s will use this as final auditions for this summer’s European Championships. One manager facing some particularly awkward decisions is England’s Gareth Southgate.
The autumn internationals seemed to provide the first real blow of Soutgate’s largely successful four and a half years at the helm. England struggled with covid breaches, indiscipline and stilted performances as they failed to make the semi final’s of the Nations League. Southgate’s decision to switch from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 formation drew criticism and adds an extra layer of complexity to the looming decision of who makes England’s 23 man European Championship squad.
Goalkeepers (3 Picks)
Squad Certainties: Jordan Pickford, Nick Pope, Dean Henderson
Outsiders: Freddie Woodman, Karl Darlow, Sam Johnstone
Staying Home: Tom Heaton
Southgate has stuck with the same three ‘keepers since 2019 and seems unlikely to shift now. Jordan Pickford’s distribution skills have made him Southgate’s preferred number one whilst Nick Pope has established himself as the back up. Dean Henderson won his first cap in the autumn and will go this summer as the number three for experience, despite his lack of minutes for Manchester United this season.
Should any of the top three pull up injured before June, Southgate will look to an in form goalkeeper to fill out the squad with Karl Darlow the likely pick after a strong season at Newcastle or possibly West Brom’s Sam Johnstone. Southgate could however also look to Freddie Woodman, the young goalkeeper who’s enjoying another good season int the championship with Swansea. Tom Heaton was a squad regular before last seaoson’s serious knee injury and although now recovered Heaton hasn’t regained his place in Aston Villa’s first team.
Right-backs/ Right Wing-backs (2-3 Picks)
Certainty: Trent Alexander-Arnold
Contenders: Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier, Reece James
Outsiders: Aaron Wan-Bissaka
Staying Home: Julian James, Tariq Lamptey
This is where the switch in formation makes selection cloudier. Trent Alexander-Arnold is a certainty and likely first choice in a back four, but is not a natural right wing back in a 3-4-3. If England are going ahead with 3-4-3 as the default formation Reece James who impressed in the autumn is a natural fit. However since the arrival of Thomas Tuchel, James is no longer an automatic pick at Chelsea. Kieran Trippier has proved a reliable option for Southgate and is on course to win La Liga with Atletico Madrid, but has run into controversy in a betting scandal that landed him a ten week ban. Trippier’s ban won’t stop him being available this summer but Southgate is unlikely to pick him for the March internationals.
Kyle Walker returned to the squad last year and is enjoying a strong season with champions-elect Manchester City, Walker’s recovery speed has made him a favourite of Southgate’s in a back three where he played in the 2018 World Cup. On that occasion Southgate picked 3 right backs (Walker, Trippier, Alexander-Arnold) but Southgate with greater options elsewhere may decide to take just two options.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka is another who fits a back four but isn’t a natural wing-back and despite a strong season with Manchester United remains uncapped. Wan-Bissaka could yet opt to play his international career with DR Congo but if he stays with England will likely get a first cap after the Euros. Two players who looked set for first call-ups this March were Brighton’s Tariq Lamptey and Leicester’s Julian James but both have suffered season ending injuries.
Left-backs/ Left Wing-backs (2-3 Picks)
Certainty: Ben Chilwell
Contenders: Luke Shaw, Bukayo Saka
Outsiders: Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Ashley Young, Ryan Sessegnon
Staying Home: Danny Rose
On the left flank Ben Chilwell has been first choice since the autumn of 2018 and will be part of the squad, despite like James been in and out of the Chelsea side under Tuchel. Buakyo Saka hugely impressed in the autumn internationals and is a natural on the left of a 3-4-3 and may get in the squad amongst the forwards if not one of the two left backs. Luke Shaw has enjoyed a stellar season at Manchester United and seems set to be picked in the Premier League team of the season. Shaw is certain to make the March squad but has a poor injury record that lead to him pulling out of numerous squads, Southgate will need reassuring Shaw will be available to play 7 times in 30 days during the summer.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles was a squad regular in the autumn but has endured a tough season at West Brom and isn’t a natural fit on the left. An under the radar option could be Ryan Sessegnon who’s enjoying a fruitful loan spell with Hoffenheim, like Saka he’s a better fit at wing back or winger than fullback and Southgate is tracking his progress in Germany. Ashley Young’s last cap came in the World Cup semi-final but his versatility and experience mean he could be an option in an injury crisis. Young is more a squad player than regular starter at Inter but has continued to perform well for the Serie A title leaders. The other left back from the World Cup, Danny Rose is out of favour at Tottenham and is not a serious contender for the Euros.
Central Defence (4 picks)
Certainty: Harry Maguire
Contenders: John Stones, Eric Dier, Connor Coady, Tyrone Mings, Michael Keane
Outsiders: Ben Godfrey, Joe Gomez, Rob Holding, Fikayo Tomori, Ben White
Staying Home: Lewis Dunk, James Tarkowski, Chris Smalling
Southgate’s recent return to three at the back was almost certainly in response to a lack of reliable central defensive options. Fortunately since November the picture has become far brighter and that may well lead to a return to 4-3-3, but either way Southgate will select four central defenders with Walker or possibly midfielders Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice presenting a fifth option in central defence. After a ropey start to the season Harry Maguire has recovered his form and will start when England walk out to face Croatia at Wembley. Alongside side him is likely to be the revitalised John Stones. The Manchester City defender had fallen out of favour for both club and country but looks a player reborn since his reintroduction to the City team. Stones has always had the ball playing skills Southgate craves but looks far more assured defensively than previously seen. Stones will get his recall this month and barring disaster will go to the Euros.
The back up options remain a problem, Joe Gomez would have gone but as in 2018 appears set to miss the tournament through injury. That opens the door to other right sided central defenders with Eric Dier a Southgate favourite, the Tottenham defender has been heavily criticised for a series of blunders but has experience and can fill in different positions. Michael Keane has struggled at international level but is enjoying an improved season with Everton. Conor Coady made his long overdue international debut last year and is a natural fit at the centre of a back three and has adopted to a back four at Wolves this season.
Southgate would like a left sided central defender to back up Maguire and Tyrone Mings remains the likeliest option although doubts remain over his international class. Although a right footer Ben Godfrey could be a late bolter here, the former Norwich defender has excelled in his debut season at Everton, but for now he’s one of a clutch of youngsters who’ll spend March playing the Euro U-21 group games. Others hoping for a late call include Fikayo Tomori who’s enjoying a good loan spell with AC Milan, Arsenal’s Rob Holding and Brighton’s Ben White. James Tarkowski remains on the fringes of the squad but hasn’t been able to force his way in, whilst Lewis Dunk’s only cap came back in 2018. Chris Smalling has enjoyed a new lease of life at Roma but hasn’t been picked since Southgate dropped him in 2017.
Central Midfield (3-4 picks)
Certainties: Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson (if fit)
Contenders: Kalvin Phillips, Harry Winks, James Ward-Prowse
Outsiders: Curtis Jones, Jude Bellingham, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tom Davies
Staying Home: Fabian Delph, Jonjo Shelvey
Regardless of system England will play with two central midfielders this summer. If they do continue in 3-4-3 that may mean squeezing the squad places to three with a advanced midfielder becoming an option in a deeper role. Jordan Henderson has been forced out of position at club level due to Liverpool’s injury crisis and more worryingly is now out until at least April. Henderson should have time to make it back ahead of the finals but Southgate won’t be willing to take the midfielder if he can’t prove his match fitness ahead of the tournament. Declan Rice is the other squad certainty despite a difficult start to his England career. Rice is a natural fit at the base of midfield and is enjoying an excellent season at West Ham.
Kalvin Phillips is another option and offers Southgate a deep lying playmaker. Phillips is having a strong first Premier League season with Leeds but has so far been deployed by England in an unfamiliar double pivot midfield. Harry Winks has struggled for regular place at Tottenham this season but his passing range have proved an important cog for Southgate whose midfield pairings have otherwise looked stodgy and too slow to recycle the ball forward. James Ward-Prowse is a favourite of Southgate’s from his time as Under 21s manager and is now the most prolific English dead ball specialist (in the Premier League) since David Beckham. However, Ward-Prowse has yet to convince at international level and remains on the fringes of the squad.
17-year-old Jude Bellingham became England’s third youngest cap ever when he made a brief debut against Ireland in November. Bellingham has enormous potential but for now remains a rotational player with Borussia Dortmund and this summer’s tournament is likely to come a little too early for him. Two other young players who could make a late bid for the squad are Liverpool’s Curtis Jones and Everton’s Tom Davies although both will probably stay with the Under 21s this summer.
One player who could re-emerge for England is Ruben Loftus-Cheek after his recovery from a torn achilles tendon and successful loan spell with Fulham. Loftus-Cheek is another old favourite of Southgate’s and did make the World Cup squad as an attacking midfielder. But, with hefty competition for places in that department he may now have a better chance of playing in a deeper role, although questions remain over his work-rate off the ball. Two players who can now be ruled out are Fabian Delph who’s struggled for games at Everton and Newcastle playmaker Jonjo Shelvey whose last cap came in 2015.
Number Ten’s (2-3 picks)
Certainties: Mason Mount, Jack Grealish
Contenders: James Maddison, Phil Foden
Outsiders: Ross Barkley, Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard, Emile Smith-Rowe
Staying Home: Adam Lallana
This is where England have a true embarrassment of riches. Mason Mount is now firmly established as a key player for both club and country with his ability to both score goals and knit play together in the attacking third. Southgate has been accused of under valuing Jack Grealish. However Grealish made the most of his chances in the autumn and is at least assured of a place in the squad.
That appears to leave two of England’s brightest young stars fighting for one place; James Maddison and Phil Foden. Maddison surprisingly has just one cap to his name and perhaps more than any other player needs to make his case in the upcoming qualifiers. Foden finally made his eagerly awaited debut in September and impressed in November’s 4-0 hiding of Iceland. With England not guaranteed to use a number 10 all of the contenders will need to offer options in other positions; for Grealish and Foden in the front line or in central midfield for Maddison, Mount could play either role.
With a high quality quartet at the front of the queue, Ross Barkley has found himself pushed out of the squad. Barkley has done well at Aston Villa and was excellent in Euro qualifying but is unlikely to go to the finals as things stand. The same is true of England’s two automatic picks at the World Cup; Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard. Alli has shown occasional glimpses of his talent this season whilst Lingard was frozen out at Manchester United prior to his loan to West Ham. Adam Lallana would have been a key player at that World Cup were it not for injury, but Southgate hasn’t looked to the veteran midfielder since. And although he’s enjoying a breakout season with Arsenal this tournament is probably coming too soon for Emile Smith-Rowe.
Wingers/ Wide Forwards (3-4 picks)
Certainties: Raheem Stering, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho
Contender: Harvey Barnes, Callum Hudson-Odoi
Outsiders: Dwight McNeil, Jack Harrison, Ademola Lookman
Staying Home: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
England have enviable options on either side of Harry Kane with the first choice trio of pair Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling offering a devastating combination of pace and flair. Jadon Sancho looked short of form earlier this season but has rebounded strongly since the winter break for Borussia Dortmund and is another certain pick.
England may just go with those three, particularly with Saka, Foden and Grealish all potentially already in the squad. One player making a strong case for inclusion is Harvey Barnes. His form for Leicester has been too good to ignore but frustratingly he will miss the March internationals through injury. Another possible is Callum Hudson-Odoi who broke into the squad back in 2019 and is getting games as both a winger and wing-back.
A frustrating season at Liverpool appears to have ended the hopes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain whose last appearance in a major finals came at Euro 2012. Barring injuries Southgate is unlikely to entertain other options but if he does both Jack Harrison and Dwight McNeil are options on the left and Ademola Lookman is enjoying a good spell on loan at Fulham.
Centre Forwards (2 picks)
Certainty: Harry Kane (c)
Contenders: Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Danny Ings, Patrick Bamford, Tammy Abraham, Mason Greenwood, Callum Wilson, Ollie Watkins
Staying Home: Jamie Vardy
This inevitably is Harry Kane plus one. The captain is paramount to his nations hopes this summer and is the one irreplaceable member of the squad. Dominic Calvert-Lewin made his England debut last year and has made a fast start to his international career. However the goals aren’t coming as frequently as they were earlier in the season. Callum Wilson offers a similar target man option and has impressed since moving to Newcastle. However Wilson’s only England goal came in 2018 and he is also currently enduring a spell in the treatment room.
Tammy Abraham is another target man who’s been a regular in the squad over the last two seasons but has fallen out of favour at Chelsea. Patrick Bamford has proved the surprise star of the Premier League this season and will be hoping for a first call up. Bamford offers excellent movement off the ball and appears the most Kane-lite of England’s options. Ollie Watkins is another who’s impressed in his first Premier League season and can play across the frontline.
Manchester United youngster Mason Greenwood ended last season in electric form and earned his first cap in September. However he’s struggled for goals and starts this season meaning he probably stays with the Under 21s for now. Finally there’s Jamie Vardy. The Leicester talisman retired from international football after the World Cup, however he also stated he would accept the call if England really needed him back. That leaves open the possibility of a brief return this summer, however Vardy won’t return simply to sit on the bench and unless Kane is missing it’s difficult to see Southgate asking him to return.
Predicted 23 man England Euro 2020 squad:
Pickford, Pope, Henderson, Walker, Alexander-Arnold, Shaw, Chilwell, Maguire, Stones, Mings, Keane, Henderson/Winks, Rice, Phillips, Mount, Foden, Grealish, Sterling, Saka, Sancho, Rashford, Kane, Calvert-Lewin