As 78 thousand gathered in the Luzhniki Stadium to witness England take on Croatia in the World Cup 2018 semi-finals, the dominant chant in the stadium was all-too-familiar with the viewers across the globe.
“Thirty years of hurt
Never stopped me dreaming
It’s coming home
Football’s coming home.”
After all, how could they help themselves? The song certainly says 30 years, but half a century had gone by since the last time the Three Lions marched their troops to a final. Since then, a fourth-place finish in 1990 marks England’s best performance on the grandest stage.
Four minutes into the game, though, Jesse Lingard found Dele Alli unmarked with space ahead of him. Alli’s drive forward with the ball came to a halt after Croatia captain Luka Modric chased down the midfielder, and tripped him before he caused more problem.
Little did he know that Kieran Trippier had marked down that spot as his own, and made no mistake as the ball flew over the wall of dark blue shirts, past Danijel Subasic, into the top corner.
Peter Drury, on the mic, could barely control himself, much like the English crowd. “It is delicious. Glorious, glorious England goal,” rang across pubs as spilt beer-soaked wooden floors. However, it did not last as Ivan Perisic crushed Gareth Southgate’s hopes with a goal and assist.
Three years since the day, England go into a major tournament again — the European Championship —, one they have not had the chance to lift yet. With a massively improved squad, though, the pressure has ramped up. Will the new generation carry England on their back to victory and do something the likes of Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerard, Paul Scholes could not? Will the new-gen finally bring it home?
Spoilt for choice
England has, putting it frankly, arguably the best squad depth of any international team across the planet. France and, to an extent, Portugal are probably the only one that truly rivals them, but even then, it is a measurable toss-up. Even without a competent manager, this squad has enough quality to push opponents out of their way with ease.
Gareth Southgate has cherry-picked — after days of pondering — a list of 26 players from the initial 33, who he hopes will bring the trophy home. That includes four(!) right-backs in the form of Manchester City’s Kyle Walker, Atletico Madrid’s Kieran Trippier, Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Chelsea’s Reece James.
In terms of profile, leaving out Reece James would have made the most sense. Trent and Trippier are attacking full-backs, with the latter versatile enough to fit at left-back. James’ style clashes with Walker, who is a seasoned international, and has the much-needed experience most international sides crave for.
Slightly worrying, however, is the sudden injury to Trent Alexander-Arnold in the Lions’ 1-0 friendly win over Austria. Southgate spoke, saying the issue seems to be to his thigh, as the Liverpool man had to be taken off with a very ginger look on his face. The medical team is currently assessing his issue, which hopefully is not too serious as the main competition edges ominously close.
Elsewhere, the inclusion of Conor Coady and Tyrone Mings seems to come out of a place of style where Southgate prefers his centre-halves to have solid on-the-ball prowess. That said, after having complications in the defence for years, England finally had the option to choose from the likes of James Tarkowski, Lewis Dunk, Ben Godfrey, and even Mings’ teammate Ezri Konsa — all of whom have had superb seasons. On loan at AC Milan, Fikayo Tomori would have been the perfect player boasting of defensive astuteness and impressive passing composure on the ball.
With Jadon Sancho, Manchester United star Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, and left of centre options such as Bukayo Saka, and Mason Mount, who can occupy multiple positions, England’s attack is absolutely stacked. So much so, Ollie Watkins, with 19 goal contributions, had to be dropped, while Patrick Bamford (17 goals, seven assists) did not even make the cut for the provisional squad.
If utilised to its best potential, this side has the potential to hurt the hardiest defences in Europe. Not to forget, 17-year-old Jude Bellingham has had a dream start to life in the top-flight, and as a complete midfielder, can be that ‘X’ factor for England. Moreover, with clever use of the likes of Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice — two players coming off the back of tremendous individual seasons —, Southgate can pack a brick wall at the back. But, unfortunately, so far, he has been unable to find balance.
Too conservative for his own good
Stepping into the European Championship as favourites, it seems like Gareth Southgate has been unable to escape his team from the World Cup three years ago. Despite having several similar components like the recently released squad, that England team lacked talent and overall maturity. However, it did become clear the kind of players the 5o-year-old prefers — hardworking with a touch of finesse.
For what it is worth, he has escaped his formation from last time around and has used a 4-3-3 more recently, with Harry Kane headlining the team. With three Premier League golden boots and a World Cup golden boot, the Tottenham Hotspur striker will be hoping to add one from the Euros as well. However, a lot of their success depends on his form and link-up with the rest of the frontline.
He is expected to be partnered by Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford in that attack. While it certainly sounds like a risky pick, given the former’s horrid form and the latter’s injury woes, it seems unlikely that Southgate will rotate too much.
Rice has been one of the best midfielders in the Premier League, and he will be starting at the base of the midfield, as he has been for England recently. Southgate tried to incorporate both Kalvin Phillips and Rice into the same midfield during the World Cup qualifiers in April. Still, the availability of one of his favourite players, Jordan Henderson, likely means he will start on the left of Rice in a trident.
Mason Mount has been exceptional for Chelsea all year, capping off his season with an assist in the Champions League final. His undying stamina, coupled with the ability to spot a pass, make him the perfect contender to round off the centre of the park.
Harry Maguire and John Stones will be hoping for a better tournament outing this time around, as they are presumed to start together in the heart of the defence. There have been no updates on Maguire’s injury, and it playing without him would mean a lot of problems for England. More so for Jordan Pickford, who is expected to start between the woodwork.
Southgate’s England lineup will be capped off with the fullbacks, probably the most controversial point of the team. Luke Shaw has had an incredible season as arguably one of the best left-backs in Europe. He is expected to partner with long-time Southgate trustee Kieran Trippier who takes the spot on the right. The Atletico Madrid man has found balance as a defender under Diego Simeone and is arguably the best pick for that role.
A viable alternative
There are certainly holes in that England XI. For one, Declan Rice has not played as a single pivot for at least two seasons now. Placing him responsible for the midfield, albeit with two hard-working players, seems like a huge risk. Henderson will constantly shuttle to cover for Trippier’s movement across the byline, while Mount will have to share the creative burden from the centre with Harry Kane.
Instead, Southgate can look back and bring back the infamous three-at-the-back structures. With altercations, of course.
Rice can be placed alongside Jordan Henderson in the double pivot across a midfield four. Henderson boasts of sharp long-ball acumen and can supplement the wings with passes from the deep. It also means more lateral movement as they would need to cover for the wing-backs.
Speaking of, Trippier retains his spot at right-wingback in this setup. It is the one he is used to most, plying his trade in Atleti’s 3-5-2 through the course of 2020/21. Trent would be an incredible fit here as well, but his chances seem slim given Southgate’s history with him. Additionally, Trippier has had a wonderful season with Atletico Madrid.
Ben Chilwell has been given the nod at left-wingback primarily because of his attacking prowess. The Englishman loves to make late runs into the box from the left flank, taking control of the far post. This was most apparent in the FA Cup final when his last-minute goal was disallowed against Leicester City.
While not an excellent crosser of the ball, Chilwell’s movement into the box would complement Phil Foden’s inclusion into this team. Unlike Mount, Foden likes to stay wide, attacking the fullback and then moving in. With Chilwell in the mix, the two will be able to alternate between overlapping and underlapping runs, creating unpredictability while attacking.
Off the ball, the Manchester City youngster is a more attacking-minded player than Mount and roves into the box in the hope of scoring chances. Kane would love to drop deep and play lofted passes over the defence to Foden, thus increasing outputs for the English team.
Jadon Sancho has racked up 60 assists for Borussia Dortmund over the course of the last three seasons and should ideally be the first-choice winger for Southgate. His poor international form, though, will be the downfall of his selection. In this setup, though, the Dortmund winger is bound to prosper. With Trippier continuously bombarding the wing, he will have the license to drift inwards, often unmarked, and use his quick thinking near the box. It worked wonders with Achraf Hakimi in 2019/20, and there is no reason it will not work in the Euros.
The big talking point here is Jack Grealish. The problem is, Grealish often takes his sweet time to release passes, and fits best against low-blocks. England, however, play a counter-attacking setup, where Foden and Sancho’s acceleration on the ball could work wonders. The Aston Villa-man is a sensational player, though, and it would be unwise to rule him out against any team. Given enough time, he could run riot in June.
Maguire, Stones, and Pickford barely need an explanation for their picks in defence, but a certain Luke Shaw at left centre-back certainly does. Southgate has preferred Walker as the third man at the back, but the former Southampton man makes a better case given his ability on the ball and creative prowess.
Manchester United’s move for Alex Telles seems to have brought out the best in the left-back this season, who was always praised for his defensive attributes. In fact, he has played as a left-sided CB on several occasions for United, especially during their impressive run against bigger teams in 2019/20.
Having a fairly quick centre-back in that mix allows England to push and constantly shift formations mid-game. Shaw can act as the overlapping centre-half, covering for Chilwell so the Three Lions are not caught on the breakthrough the wing. It’ll also allow them to field an early crosser, who can feed Kane, and Dominic Calvert-Lewin – if and when he plays – from deep.
The likely lads
Took the little ones on their first holiday ☀️? pic.twitter.com/xUbQpsoY0K— Harry Kane (@HKane) May 28, 2021
The top goalscorer of the Premier League 2020/21. The top assist provider of the Premier League 2020/21. He does not need much more than that, in reality, does he?
To put his season into context, though, he is only the third player to win both awards in the history of the English top-flight, finishing with 23 goals and 14 assists. In addition, 37 direct goal involvements in the league put him third across the top five leagues, behind only Robert Lewandowski and Lionel Messi.
Kane finished as the top scorer of the World Cup three years ago with six goals. He faced a lot of English media scrutiny for his performance in the semi-finals against Croatia and will be hoping to find redemption during the Euros. He will look to make a statement as he looks for a new challenge at the club level after stating his desire to leave Spurs.
Mason Mount was often regarded to be receiving favours from Frank Lampard, starting week-in week-out over the rest of the attackers. However, his true quality came to stage as he became their best player under Thomas Tuchel as well, leading them to the UEFA Champions League trophy with a sensational assist to Kai Havertz in the final.
With 13 big chances created, and 2.4 key passes per game, Mount is set to be England’s creative force in the midfield. And if the likes of Henderson, Rice, and Bellingham supplement him properly, he can plunger out a performance for the ages on the biggest stage of the sport.
European football saw the importance of fullbacks grow even more, with the likes of Joao Cancelo, Jordi Alba, Ben Chilwell, Juan Cuadrado, Achraf Hakimi, among others, enjoy a brilliant season. The man who arguably trumped them all is Luke Shaw.
The Englishman was constantly among the upper echelons of playmaking this season, creating 72 chances across the top five leagues. Additionally, his 2.3 key passes per game rank him top for defenders in the Premier League and equal to a near-unstoppable Lionel Messi.
Shaw will be a constant in the four-man backline, given his balance on both ends of the pitch. And if he is able to recover from his poor end of season form, Shaw could be a dark horse and the difference-maker for England in the tournament.
When will the journey end?
If all goes according to plan, England will qualify through their group, finishing first, over the likes of Scotland, the Czech Republic, and Croatia. However, after that, they will face the runners up of Group F, likely to be one of France, Germany, or defending champions Portugal, who are all tournament favourites along with Italy, Belgium and perhaps even the Netherlands.
While the English team is monumental on paper, they lack enough direction to guide them past any of the three. Given it is a cup competition, it is tough to predict the outcome of each round. Still, it is improbable that England go past the Round of 16 or Quarter Finals (where they could meet Spain) unless Southgate decides to let go of his pre-existing notions about the team.
On the other hand, if the Three Lions manage to go all the, it certainly will not be an overachievement by any measure given their squad. Either way, the big question left unanswered remains, is it finally coming home?