A new football season is upon us with fresh hopes for fans and players alike. For the England manager the date firmly circled is Sunday 12th July 2020, the day Wembley stages the European Championships Final. After the World Cup semi final appearance and third place in the Nations League, England it seems are progressing well. However there remains plenty to do, as defeat to Holland in Portugal this summer highlighted England are still a work in progress. So what does Gareth Southgate need to do if England are to be serious contenders in June?
It would be a major shock if England failed to qualify for the finals, after scoring ten goals in their opening two games and holding first place in Group A with a game in hand. England also have a playoff spot to fall back on from winning their Nations League Group if they fail to finish in the top two of their group. It would be embarrassing for England to fall back on their playoff berth and it would be a guaranteed difficult draw against other teams from Nations League A.
England will take a huge step to automatic qualification for the finals if they beat Bulgaria and then Kosovo this September. Should England slip up it would leave them facing three of their last four games away and qualification in the balance. England should be fine but Southgate has to safeguard against complacency in what looks to be one of the weaker qualifying groups.
Pick a Back Four and Stick with Them
Assuming England qualify the eight defenders Southgate will take to the Euros are fairly predictable, but who starts looks harder to call. John Stones’ nightmare against Holland has raised familiar questions about his reliability in defence. England looked far sturdier against Switzerland with Joe Gomez partnering Harry Maguire in central defence, a pairing that worked well in England’s best performance of last season, against Spain in Betis.
Meanwhile at right back Trent Alexander-Arnold gave a man of the match performance in the third place playoff, replacing Kyle Walker who also struggled against the Dutch. Down the left Ben Chilwell had an impressive debut season with the national team but Danny Rose looked more assured in the Nations League Finals. Rose’s club future looks uncertain but he does appear first choice for his country. Luke Shaw could provide a third option but the Manchester United man’s fitness remains frustratingly unreliable and Southgate will need convincing he can be trusted. Southgate has at the most ten games to decide on his best line up, he needs to decide on his back four and as much as possible continue to play them.
Find the Midfield Balance
England’s midfield remains the biggest concern with first Luka Modric in the World Cup and then Frenkie De Jong at the Nations League exposing England’s lack of a tempo setting midfield player. England made progress with their possession play last season, but England’s starting midfield trio against the Dutch of Fabian Delph, Declan Rice and Ross Barkley simply wasn’t good enough and showed all too familiar failings.
England’s preferred 4-3-3 formation dictates Southgate picking six midfielders in his squad with the current balance being two holding players, two linking playmakers and two attacking midfielders. For the Nations League Southgate picked Rice and Eric Dier as holding midfielders, Delph and Jordan Henderson to link and Barkley and Dele Alli as attacking midfielders.
Rice was poor against Holland but that was only his third cap after switching allegiance to England. Dier has plenty of detractors but has experience and has now twice struck the winning spot kick in penalty shoot outs. With Delph also a ‘water carrier’ in midfield England don’t need more defensive midfielders although Newcastle’s Sean Longstaff may be one to watch and Southgate likes Nathaniel Chalobah should the injury hit midfielder make a consistent run.
The link man role remains critical to England and Southgate was hamstrung in June after Jordan Henderson picked up a niggle in The Champions League Final and Harry Winks wasn’t deemed fit enough to make the squad. Both offer a far better passing range than Delph and look likely to be fighting it out for the midfield metronome role next summer. Southgate missed a trick when he overlooked James Ward-Prowse this summer and the Southampton man remains on the fringes whilst Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook could be a contender as he nears recovery from a cruciate ligament injury.
In attacking midfield Barkley was much improved last season but comes with flaws whilst Alli needs to bounce back from a poor season at Spurs. England have three dynamic new options they could turn to this season. It’s no secret that Phil Foden is a precocious talent and his brilliant solo goal proved one of the few highlights of the Under 21s dismal tournament run this summer. It seems Pep Guardiola is grooming Foden to replace David Silva and a senior call up isn’t far away. Then there’s James Maddison who enjoyed a fruitful season as Leicester’s number 10 and Mason Mount who may well get that role in Frank Lampard’s new look Chelsea. Not to mention the return from injury of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with Ruben Loftus-Cheek due back by December and Southgate’s early favourite Adam Lallana trying to regain fitness and form. England clearly have plenty of midfield options but getting the balance right and picking the correct players represent a conundrum for Southgate.
Kane, Sterling and…?
England’s greatest strength remains their front three, with Harry Kane as a number nine flanked by Raheem Sterling and one any one of europe’s hottest young striking talents. At the moment Marcus Rashford looks to have the third spot in the lineup and the trio of Rashford-Kane-Sterling devastated Spain in October. But Rashford is now playing a more central role at club level and new talents have broken through in Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi. Sancho was the breakout star of European football last season and is a squad certainty with England, but should he start over Rashford?
Hudson-Odoi made his England debut before his Premier League bow, but looks critical to Chelsea who are now without Eden Hazard. It also means Jesse Lingard is no longer guaranteed an England place and although a good servant to Southgate needs an improved season to move back up the England pecking order. These are nice problems for Southgate to have but cementing the starting trio in attack is important to England’s hopes next summer.
Coping without Kane
As Tottenham discovered in The Champions League Final a half fit Harry Kane isn’t an asset and much as the nation will be crossing their fingers whenever Tottenham play from the spring onwards England need a second choice centre forward. That could be Rashford with an extra wide man added to the squad, but for now the second choice is Callum Wilson. The Bournemouth forward has the physicality for the role but despite a goal on his debut there remain doubts over his suitability for international football. Southgate will likely look at other options with Tammy Abraham and Dominic Calvert-Lewin possibilities.
Pick a Wildcard
Most England squads have a wildcard selection from runaway hits Paul Gascoigne (1990) and Michael Owen (1998), to the less successful Theo Walcott (2006) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (2012). More recently Marcus Rashford was the late comer at Euro 2016 and Southgate’s own World Cup wildcard was Trent Alexander-Arnold. Could someone gatecrash the party for Euro 2020? Foden and Mount could be considered wildcards but are already in the frame. Other names to watch include Manchester United’s Mason Greenwood, Leicester’s Harvey Barnes, Liverpool’s Rhian Brewster, Arsenal’s Reiss Nelson and England’s newest Bundesliga export Ademola Lookman.
Try out a plan b formation
England’s default formation has switched from 3-5-2 to 4-3-3, but having another formation ready to go would be a smart move. Southgate has spoken of Terry Venables’ using the build up to Euro ’96 to try out three at the back so he could deploy at the finals at short notice. Southgate should use one upcoming friendly to try the something new, perhaps a diamond or reverting to a three man defence. Notably Joachim Low switched to three at the back against Italy at Euro 2016. In doing so Low scored Germany’s only win over their longtime nemesis in a competitive international, Southgate could do with a similar trick up his sleeve next summer.