No room for error but all the usual question marks

In fairness, Gareth Southgate has done as well as any England manager in recent years.

A World Cup semi-final appearance in 2018 – albeit an opportunity frustratingly wasted – perhaps offered genuine optimism that the national team were about to deliver on the big stage. However, here we are, heading into the next major tournament, again questioning the squad and above all, the bravery of the man in the hot seat.

Of course, Southgate has had to develop a thick skin – a trait most probably honed following that penalty shootout against Germany at Wembley in 1996. Nevertheless, with that in mind and arguably the best set of attacking players the country has developed since, I can’t help believing the manager has gone for safety and caution over additional flair and bravery.

Warm-up matches against Austria and Romania have been won, but have hardly captured the imagination. Players have been deployed in each of these fixtures whom Southgate appears to have had little intention of including. Indeed, Jesse Lingard, who has been superb during a loan spell at West Ham, and James Ward-Prowse, consistent for Southampton, must feel somewhat miffed having been left out of Southgate’s final Euro 2020 squad, used and then left dangling around the group while he made up his mind on a replacement for Trent Alexander-Arnold, one of four right-sided defenders initially selected, but set to miss out having sustained a calf injury during the kickabout with Austria.

In the end, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Southgate plumped for Brighton & Hove Albion’s Ben White. Another player initially cut from the twenty-six, another defender, and from a fan’s perspective, a questionable addition to a group who desperately need creativity in what is almost certain to be a cagey tournament.

But that’s not to say that White isn’t worth a place in the group. His form on the south coast has been good. The 23-year-old has served his footballing apprenticeship, playing in all four divisions of the English game, no doubt providing a resolve and mental toughness to the skill factor nurtured in the Premier League. But above all, he is fit!

Despite a worrying ankle injury sustained during Manchester United’s win over Aston Villa in early May, Harry Maguire’s selection never appeared to be in any doubt. Why? 

Sure, the player has suggested to the media that he is on the road to recovery. But where exactly does that leave England and more to the point, if you had been left out of the squad while the likes of Maguire and Jordan Henderson – another player short on fitness and lacking match practice – are packing their boots, wouldn’t you be asking yourself, why bother?

Southgate could argue that in the past, England has sweated and ultimately taken a risk on the fitness of Kevin Keegan, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney ahead of big tournaments, and yes, football has changed significantly over that time frame. But let’s be honest, those three – past or present – would bring far more to the table and I can understand the calculated risk.

But for argument’s sake, White in for Maguire. The Manchester United man hasn’t got the benefit of a friendly to prove his fitness. His form for both club and country has often been at the centre of criticism. Why risk him and why risk the wrath of the fans and media over a footballer they already hold doubts over, injured or otherwise?

Henderson’s inclusion, for me, is equally baffling. The 30-year-old returned to the fray for the Romania game after four months on the sideline, replacing Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips at half-time and subsequently providing a rusty performance capped with a poor penalty attempt which was comfortably rebuffed by Florin Nita. 

Again, Lingard and Ward-Prowse have provided ample evidence that they are ready to go. Certainly, the manager isn’t picking his best group on current form if a player hasn’t been available for a third of the season?

I’d even ask questions over the inclusion of Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham, simply because I don’t see Southgate looking at the bench and turning to them to dig us out of a hole. Both players are highly regarded by their clubs, have a huge future ahead of them and have the potential to create and produce. But is Southgate brave enough? We are already left wondering whether he’ll start with Jack Grealish – a player who excites the fans and is a proven match-winner. Again, I have my doubts.

We say it ahead of every big tournament, but this time England have a terrific opportunity to make an impact and end 55 years of torture. Of course, like me, you all have your opinions on players and who you’d pick and why. But ultimately, Gareth Southgate has a far bigger pool of players to select from than at any time in recent history. The days of ‘the squad picking itself’ are gone, there is genuine competition for places that needs to be recognised.

As ever, pressure is on the man at the helm. I’m not sure I’ve ever questioned the selection of an England squad as much as I have this one. But then again, my opinion isn’t going to be judged by a nation fed up with ‘nearly’, ‘failure’ and undermined with excuses. 

All eyes on Wembley Stadium next Sunday. There is absolutely no room for error.

The England Euro 2020 squad in full is as follows;

Goalkeepers: Dean Henderson (Manchester United), Sam Johnstone (West Bromwich Albion), Jordan Pickford (Everton)

Defenders: John Stones (Manchester City), Luke Shaw (Manchester United), Harry Maguire (Manchester United), Ben White (Brighton & Hove Albion), Kyle Walker (Manchester City), Tyrone Mings (Aston Villa), Reece James (Chelsea), Conor Coady (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Ben Chilwell (Chelsea), Kieran Trippier (Atletico Madrid)

Midfielders: Mason Mount (Chelsea), Declan Rice (West Ham United), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund), Kalvin Phillips (Leeds United)

Forwards: Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Dominic Calvert-Lewin (Everton), Phil Foden (Manchester City), Jack Grealish (Aston Villa), Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal)

England’s Euro 2020 Group ’D’ fixtures;

Sunday, June 13 

England v Croatia Wembley Stadium (2pm)

Thursday, June 18

England v Scotland (Wembley Stadium 8pm)

Tuesday, June 22 

Czech Republic vs England Wembley Stadium 8pm)

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Brian Jeeves

Email: [email protected]