“It’s a good headache to have.” So goes one of English football’s strangest cliches. Is it ever good to have a headache? Nobody would dispute that some headaches are more severe than others, but they are never a pleasurable experience and all end with the poor sod on the end of it reaching for a packet of paracetamol.
Gareth Southgate might have done just that over the last few weeks and months, or has perhaps even sought out something stronger. On the one hand, he is blessed with the deepest talent pool that an England manager has been able to draw from in more than a decade. On the other, he cannot squeeze all of that talent into his final squad for Euro 2020.
Even with Uefa expanding the size of squads from 23 players to 26 to counter the risk of positive Covid tests and enforced quarantines, there are likely to be controversial calls and possibly high-profile omissions from Southgate’s selection for the delayed tournament. A provisional squad will be announced from St George’s Park later today, then cut down to size on 1 June.
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The Trent Alexander-Arnold dilemma is the biggest. Left out of the March internationals due to below-par performances, the Liverpool right-back has found form again in the time since, but Southgate’s reservations run a little deeper. Alexander-Arnold is undoubtedly the most imaginative and inventive of England’s many right-backs, but whether he is tactically suited to what Southgate is trying to achieve is an open question that is no closer to an answer.
Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and Reece James are his rivals for a place. All four candidates offer something slightly different and it would not be a surprise if only one of them missed out. Walker is likely to start the tournament as first-choice after an excellent year at champions Manchester City, but Trippier’s experience and leadership is valued. James has been highly regarded within Southgate’s set-up since his debut last October, even being included for November’s camp despite being suspended for two of the three games.
Another decision is whether to gamble on including the injured pair Jordan Henderson and Harry Maguire. Their status as senior members of the squad – captains of Liverpool and Manchester United respectively – makes it a calculated risk worth taking. Both will hope to be involved in either of the two warm-up games against Austria and Romania in Middlesbrough.
Nick Pope’s prospects are bleaker after the Burnley goalkeeper was forced to undergo knee surgery, though his chances of displacing Jordan Pickford as No 1 were slim after uncertain showings in possession during the March games.
Jack Grealish is expected to be included despite missing much of the last few months with a shin problem. Whether the midfielder starts is more contentious. Though arguably more effective in the 3-4-3 system that Southgate deployed during the autumn than the 4-3-3 preferred in March, there will still be a great clamour for the Aston Villa captain to be involved and at least regularly come off the substitutes’ bench.
The other pinch points are the centre of midfield and centre of defence, where the well of talent does not run as deep as in wide and attacking areas. Kalvin Phillips – expected to recover from a shoulder problem – and James Ward-Prowse have been squad regulars this season and will hope to make the final cut even with Henderson risked. Phillips probably has the edge having started all three of the recent World Cup qualifiers.
In defence, Tyrone Mings and Conor Coady have emerged as the leading alternatives to Maguire and the reborn John Stones. Eric Dier has struggled for form and had spells out of the Tottenham starting line-up, but his ability to cover both of Southgate’s problem positions may work in his favour. Beyond Maguire and Stones though, England are short on convincing options at the back. Joe Gomez, still recovering from an injury picked up on international duty in November, will be missed.
There is more optimism around the streak of young emerging talent who will make their tournament bows. Bukayo Saka is on the fringes of the squad, but his versatility and ability are both highly valued by Southgate, meaning it would be no surprise if the England manager found space for him. Jude Bellingham will not turn 18 until the end of next month but could be the answer to the midfield question, now or in the near future. His Borussia Dortmund team-mate Jadon Sancho could easily remind us all why there was such excitement around his emergence after the last World Cup.
If any English player is about to break out onto the world stage though, it is Phil Foden, who has been magical for Man City during the second half of this season. Though he would only have had an outside chance of selection if the tournament had been played last summer, he is now the likeliest of these youngsters to start. Foden’s breakthrough is part of the reason why England can be quietly optimistic about this tournament.
The talent pool is only deeper for the delay. And while that improves Southgate’s chances of success, it will only have made his headaches worse.
Predicted 26-man squad
Goalkeepers: Dean Henderson (Manchester United), Jordan Pickford (Everton), Sam Johnstone (West Brom).
Defenders: Ben Chilwell (Chelsea), Conor Coady (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Eric Dier (Tottenham), Reece James (Chelsea), Harry Maguire (Manchester United), Tyrone Mings (Aston Villa), Luke Shaw (Manchester United), John Stones (Manchester City), Kieran Trippier (Atletico Madrid), Kyle Walker (Manchester City).
Midfielders: Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Mason Mount (Chelsea), Declan Rice (West Ham), Kalvin Phillips (Leeds), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal).
Forwards: Dominic Calvert-Lewin (Everton), Phil Foden (Manchester City), Jack Grealish (Aston Villa), Harry Kane (Tottenham), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund).
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