During a time of uncertainty, there is one thing for sure in the football calendar, the postponement of the 2020 European Championships. Europe’s top leagues will no doubt have welcomed the move with open arms, allowing for the continuation of their domestic seasons. Whilst this leaves heartbreak for football fans across Europe, there are many reasons as for why England could benefit from an extra year to prepare.
England’s last two major international tournaments have taken different turns. Gareth Southgate’s ability to guide the second youngest squad at the 2018 World Cup to a fourth place finish eradicated the damage that the humiliation of Euro 2016 had brought. Following on from the strong performances in the Nations League, there was a fresh sense of optimism coming into 2020.
However, injuries and poor form from star players created doubt in the Three Lions’ potential as the tournament drew nearer. From a football perspective, England could be sure to benefit from the delay. With the tournament now pushed back, Gareth Southgate has the opportunity to get the very best from an England squad tipped for greatness.
England’s attacking prowess
The 2018 World Cup proved that there was no doubt in England’s ability going forward. The Three Lions’ captain Harry Kane secured the golden boot and proved a pivotal figure in this England team. Fast forward to 2020 and the Tottenham striker found himself fighting to be fit to lead his side across Europe.
It is easy to get excited with the wealth of attacking options available to the England manager. The Three Lions’ alternative options seemed to step up in Kane’s absence with the emergence of Tammy Abraham at Chelsea and Marcus Rashford enjoying one of his best seasons at Old Trafford. Even down in Southampton, Danny Ings had the Saints on his back as he continually pulled them out of the rough. The serious injury to Marcus Rashford also left England looking thin in an area they excelled in two years before. The delay allows both Kane and Rashford the chance to regain full fitness and once again find the net as often as they have before. Their return to form brings a renewed sense of life to the England attack and the reignition of hope into an England side that doesn’t look as comfortable in their absence.
The emergence of young talent
The 2019/20 Premier League season has seen the rise of many bright young England stars. The Three Lions proved in 2018 that age was not a defining factor in success and the postponed Euros allows more time for Southgate’s team to gain experience and continue their growth. Since Russia, some of England’s squad have taken their performances to the next level. Jadon Sancho has become a world renowned name at Borussia Dortmund and Trent Alexander-Arnold has arguably become one of the best in his position in world football. The future of English international football appears bright and there are plenty more names being made at the top level in the Premier League.
Arsenal fan favourite Bukayo Saka has taken the league by storm in a struggling Arsenal side. His versatility has brought much attention, in playing most of the season thus far at left back highlights the contribution he can have to this England squad. England have looked short at left back in recent years as Luke Shaw has been trying to get back to his best and the form of Ben Chilwell seemingly dropping off this season. Saka offers Southgate a touch of flair on the left and his ability to attack has the potential to give England that bit more going forward. Despite being best deployed further up the pitch, Saka has proven that his versatility offers more than just the conventional winger. Another season in an Arsenal side trying to get back to their best is exactly what Saka needs to further cement a claim for consideration.
Chelsea’s transfer ban saw Frank Lampard look to youth last summer for the answers he needed. England internationals Fikayo Tomori, Reece James and Callum Hudson-Odoi have excelled when deployed in this new look Chelsea side. Like with Bukayo Saka, the extra year allows them to continue to hone their skills and gain experience at a young age to give England an increased depth that has so often been missing.
After starting the season so well Fikayo Tomori has fallen slightly down the pecking order following the return of Antonio Rudiger. His performances earned him a first international call up and at a time where there is so much uncertainty surrounding the heart of the Three Lions defence, Tomori has been given the chance to fight for his place.
Reece James has provided Chelsea with an alternative option to the ever reliable César Azpilicueta. His ability to drive forwards and aid the attack has highlighted the danger he represents on the right flank, claiming three assists this season. James was named player of the year for Wigan last season and had more appearances than anyone else at the club. England are well equipped in that department at the moment with the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, but James is clearly comfortable in more than one position. At Wigan he excelled in midfield and for Chelsea when he has had the opportunity to gain the ball in these areas he has looked increasingly confident.
Phil Foden shot to fame after winning the U17s World Cup with England, scoring a hat-trick in the final. City’s young star also won Young Sports Personality of the Year in 2017, but what has happened since? Foden has become a bit part player under Guardiola, playing behind the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and David Silva. Pep has given Foden the rare opportunity providing glimpses of class at the top level. David Silva is set to leave Manchester City at the end of this season and in Foden Pep Guardiola already has the perfect replacement. His technical profile makes him not only an ideal heir to Silva, but he also fits the mould of a player that can thrive under the management of Guardiola. Despite being just 5 ft 5” he is a dynamic ball carrying midfielder providing the link between defence and attack. With Silva departing, the upcoming season is Foden’s chance to climb the pecking order at both City and England.
The goalkeeper debate
Then there comes the ongoing goalkeeper issue that Southgate faces. Jordan Pickford has cemented the number one spot over recent years but with the breakthrough of Dean Henderson and Nick Pope and a dip in form, the penalty heroics against Colombia have become a distant memory. Both Henderson (10) and Pope (11) have more clean sheets than Pickford (6) this season and the Everton shot stopper has been increasingly criticised for poor performances. The delay allows the competition for the number one spot to continue and be taken to the next level. Pickford has a point to prove and an extra season to get back to the shot stopping glory that won over England fans in 2018. For Henderson and Pope it is an opportunity to displace the current first choice.
Gareth Southgate is a big advocate of playing out from the back and both Pope and Henderson would need to work on this element of their game. With Burnley favouring a more physical and direct approach, Pope’s ball playing ability is set to be questioned if he is to cement the number one spot. Dean Henderson appears the more likely option, off the back of an incredible season with the overachieving Sheffield United. However, uncertainty looms as to where he will be playing next season. David De Gea has experienced a dip in form in recent years and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may see the potential rivalry between Henderson and De Gea as a positive element of his rebuild. The most likely scenario would probably see Henderson return to Bramall Lane next season and with more Premier League experience there is no doubt that he presents a great challenge to the current number one.
The chance to refine and solidify the midfield
For England one problem they have always faced is attempting to fit a selection of top midfielders into the same side. This was especially the case with the likes of Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes and Beckham, but was also prevalent in France in 2016. Hodgson’s inability to settle on a formation and persistence with Wayne Rooney playing in a deeper role, (despite him not playing there in any warm up games) saw England lack creativity and a sense of urgency in the middle of the park.
Once again England have a lot of options in the centre of midfield. Both Jack Grealish and James Maddison have lit up the Premier League this season with their ability to carry the ball and their sense of flair going forward. With Jordan Henderson as the obvious playmaking pivot, both could be given the freedom to get forward and supply the frontline.
Mason Mount’s ascension to the Chelsea starting XI exhibits flurries of quality, adding to the depth that England have seemingly lacked throughout recent years. With the dip in form of Dele Alli, Eric Dier and Jesse Lingard, Mount has the opportunity to become a regular feature in this England squad.
Declan Rice is another name that has exploded into the lights since Russia. Playing in a deeper role Rice offers cover for Jordan Henderson. As Eric Dier appears to continually fall further from the England first team, Rice has gone from strength to strength for West Ham. Rumours have circulated regarding a potential high profile transfer, with Manchester United constantly being linked. Would a move propel Rice up the Three Lions pecking order though? Rice offers a bite that England sometimes lack and there is no doubt that this squad could develop further with an enhanced physical backbone.
Find a winning centre back partnership
For many years, the English defence was controlled by the strong characters of Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry and, in more recent years, Gary Cahill. England have a wealth of competent performers at the heart of defence but not yet has the baton been picked up.
In the World Cup semi final against Croatia in 2018 Gareth Southgate opted for a back three consisting of Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire. England’s last Euro 2020 qualifier in November saw only Harry Maguire remain, alongside Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings. So why have England shifted from the three that brought success in Russia?
John Stones has struggled with injuries since the World Cup, but this has not been helped by his sub-par performances when called upon. He has been consistently criticised for his defensive calibre, increasingly so following his mistake in the Nations League against the Netherlands. Stones offers something different to Southgate’s side due to his passing ability, however this also generates anxiety in any football fan when watching their team attempting to play from the back. Stones was comfortable in a back three because there was added cover. With Stones also failing to cement a starting role in Guardiola’s Manchester City side this season, there is no doubt that the postponement benefits him as he constantly battles to assure both Southgate and the England fans that he is the right man for the job.
England’s qualifying performances hardly solved the centre back issue. Michael Keane was unable to prove worthy of a regular start in some sloppy performances across the campaign. Even Manchester United skipper Harry Maguire has seemingly dropped off the pace following his big money move. Joe Gomez has become a regular in a dominant Liverpool side this season, but also suffering from injury problems has stunted his progress in the England squad. With a decreasing confidence from fans in John Stones’ performances in a back four, the opportunity is there for Southgate to experiment. Joe Gomez has been deployed at right back on numerous occasions for Liverpool. Alongside Stones and Maguire, who excelled in the back three in Russia, could be Southgate’s best bet.
“We have to look at everything and the profiles of the players and the profiles of the full-backs,” said Southgate. “I certainly wouldn’t rule it (a back three) out. We are very open-minded on how we might need to be looking forward and how we might need to look against the top teams.”
It is easy, however, to overlook players that don’t fall into the ‘top six’ bracket, that has become so highly regarded. There is a wealth of centre back options as you move down the Premier League. Tyrone Mings has become a dominant force for Aston Villa and started England’s most recent match. Conor Coady plays at the heart of a back three, similar in style to Stones and was extremely impressive in leading Wolves to European qualification last season, but Southgate has expressed doubts over Coady’s ability to adapt to a back four. A wildcard perhaps, but Jack O’Connell has performed highly in an overachieving Sheffield side. Another who plays in a back three in Chris Wilder’s overlapping centre back system, O’Connell is not afraid to get forward and pass the ball, nor to do the dirty work at the back.
The postponement of the Euros gives Southgate the time to experiment with his defence and find the best partnership. With so many options, Southgate has to decide how best his defence can work and now he has more time to find that winning backline.