England Is Ready Now, But Gareth Southgate Might Not Be
11:57 AM EDT on June 2, 2021
Gareth Southgate better know what he's doing. The England manager released his squad for this summer's European Championships, and the Three Lions should be considered among the top favorites to take the trophy home. All of England's stars are in the mix, but the balance seems off:
This is the most talented player pool that England has had in a long time, with a mix of established stars like Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, and old slabhead Harry Maguire, combining with young spark plugs on the verge of something truly special. (And also Marcus Rashford, who straddles the line between both groups.) Anything less than a semifinal run would be a disappointment, and a big part of the team's success will come down to Southgate figuring out how to deploy his many talented players in a coherent, complimentary way. Looking at this selection on paper, it's hard to believe that he will do just that.
Conventional wisdom in soccer says that winning the midfield battle wins the game. Southgate does not appear to believe in that chestnut. It's not just that he's bringing only one more central midfielder (five) than he is right backs (four). The collection of midfielders making the trek across Europe for the tournament is fairly strange. Borussia Dortmund's Jude Bellingham is great, but is also still only 17 years old; Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson is massively important for both club and country, but he's been injured and hasn't played a game in four months; West Ham's Declan Rice also had a lengthy injury at the end of the season; Chelsea's Mason Mount had a hell of a season, but he's an attacking midfielder on a team that has a crap ton of attackers already; Leeds United's Kalvin Phillips is a wonderful box-to-box whirlwind, but he might not be of the same level of quality as the rest of the starters.
This group of players makes even less sense looking at England's most recent matches together as an international squad. In those World Cup Qualifiers at the end of March, Southgate lined the Three Lions up in a 4-3-3; it would take a considerable amount of injury and fitness luck to make it through the entirety of the Euros in a three-man-midfield formation with only five midfielders. (It is worth noting that nominal forwards Phil Foden and Jack Grealish could play in a three-man midfield, but those two could also very well be the starting wingers.) Instead, the manager will most likely switch to the 3-4-3 England has often used in the recent past, with only two central midfielders. That could work, and would explain the glut of right backs, but it would rely on Henderson and Rice staying fit to work. Phillips can restrain himself as a defensive/possession-based midfielder, but that's wasting his talents. Mount is really too attacking to be an ideal fit in a midfield pair for a whole tournament. Bellingham works hard in defense but, again, he's not even 18 yet.
It's easy to look at the England squad and wonder whether it would have been better to drop one of the many defenders in order to bring, say, Southampton's set piece wizard James Ward-Prowse as cover for Henderson. Why, yes, it probably would have been ... unless Southgate has something truly revolutionary up his sleeve. Given the reports from the last few weeks, it appears the 50-year-old manager is not all that high on Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold, at least at what one would assume will be the right wing back slot of that 3-4-3; that role appears sealed up for Kieran Trippier, who in fairness had a wonderful season for La Liga champions Atlético Madrid. (Kyle Walker and Reece James appear to be in competition for the right center back role of a three-at-the-back; both have played that role for their respective clubs.)
What if Southgate's master plan is to start Alexander-Arnold in the center of midfield, something Liverpool fans have been whispering about for going on two years now? That would allow the 22-year-old to ping his trademark long passes out instead of in; crosses would mostly, though not entirely, be out, and instead, he'd be looking for wing backs and England's many talented attackers from deep in the midfield, while providing some strong running alongside his club captain. It could work, and is the type of wrinkle that could either make Southgate look like a genius or backfire spectacularly.
Given Southgate's track record, which included dropping Alexander-Arnold for the March qualifiers, it's hard to believe him doing something so adventurous, as intriguing as it would be for anyone with a vested interest in either England or Liverpool. Turning Alexander-Arnold into his country's version of Austria's do-it-all star David Alaba or Germany's Joshua Kimmich is a romantic notion, but Southgate hasn't shown himself to be much of an experimenter. It's more likely that he saw Alexander-Arnold put on a hell of a second half of the Premier League season and still had doubts, bringing him along only to cover for an unfortunate Trippier injury. It might even work out. England has that much talent. In a way, the Three Lions are where France was at the 2016 Euros: a young team that had all the promise in the world and was finally ready to deliver on it. Les Bleus made the final of that tournament, losing only to Portugal on a fluky goal by a little-used substitute, and went on to win the World Cup two years later.
Regardless of specifics like formations and individual selection decisions, it's about time for England, so famous in name but ultimately lacking in international trophies, with only the 1966 World Cup in the trophy cabinet, to take the next step. There's a moment when a team of cool, young players has to go from being an up-and-coming group to watch in the future and turn into something ready to win in present. Success has to be demanded from Southgate and his players, and it's time to deliver on what is a juggernaut's worth of talent. Southgate's squad selection is cause for at least minor concern about whether he's the man to oversee that transition.