Following England’s 1-0 friendly victory over Romania at the Riverside Stadium last Sunday, Gareth Southgate approached reporters with a confident stride. “There’s probably one decision in my head,” the England boss said regarding his team selection ahead of the Three Lions’ EURO 2020 opener against Croatia on 13 June.
“Every time over the last three months I’ve pieced a squad together, that’s changed rapidly and, you know, painfully, with injuries.
“So, let’s hope we can get through to next Sunday without losing any more players,” the former Middlesbrough manager added.
Southgate, then, approaches the opening game of the European Championship with a degree of certainty regarding who will take to the field for England against Zlatko Dalić’s Kockasti on Sunday.
Harry Kane will inevitably lead the line for England, with Jordan Pickford stationed between the posts at the other end of the pitch, but question marks remain over who will play alongside Tottenham’s wantaway captain.
Aston Villa playmaker Jack Grealish is a leading candidate to feature in England’s attack but faces stiff competition from Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho and Manchester City’s Phil Foden, to name just two options.
“We have got some very big decisions – in that particular position, we’ve got some outstanding players,” Southgate told BBC Radio 5 Live on Sunday.
“Whether we play with wingers in a 4-3-3, number 10s in a 3-4-3, with two wingers and a number 10 in a 4-2-3-1, we’ve got in those front slots very exciting players who can win matches.
“We’re going to need them all and we’re going to disappoint temporarily some of them when we name the team for the first game.”
So, despite Southgate’s initial claim that he has only one decision to make before England’s meeting with Croatia, several questions remain unanswered.
Three years ago, England’s main task was to simply overwrite memories of that loss against Iceland. Today, the mood is different
Will the World Cup semi-finalists from 2018 line-up with a three or four man defence? Who will join Kane in the final third? Is Jordan Henderson fit enough to play a prominent role during the group stage? And what about the unicorn-riding Harry Maguire, too?
Unlike in the build-up to the World Cup in Russia, the narrative around the England squad is tense. The Three Lions enter the European Championship with the expectations of a nation placed on their shoulders. Three years ago, England’s main task was to simply overwrite memories of that loss against Iceland. Today, the mood is different.
Southgate is no longer just the guy in the waistcoat, his questionable handling of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s situation means that he has to deliver.
And that is no mean feat. England face stiff competition in Group D.
Croatia, who eliminated Southgate’s side from the World Cup in 2018, boast an impressive array of talent in central midfield. Luke Modric, despite his age, isn’t a bad player to be relying on for creativity in the middle of the park.
Scotland’s appearance at this summer’s European Championship is historic. Steve Clarke’s side banished 25 years of hurt by qualifying for EURO 2020 via the playoffs – they would love nothing more than to upset England at Wembley in a meeting of the auld enemies on 18 June.
The Czech Republic will also be hoping to spoil England’s fun in North London. In the last meeting between the two sides, Jaroslav Šilhavý’s men defeated the Three Lions 2-1 in a decisive qualifying match in Prague. They will be no pushovers on 22 June.
In truth, what should be expected from England will only emerge after full-time on Sunday. If England win well against Croatia, it will set Southgate’s side up for a deep run in the tournament. If the result (and performance) is less positive, the Three Lions’ concern-o-meter will start to garner further attention.
The Croatia match will also unveil Southgate’s grand plan.
How many players will make up England’s defence? Who will join Harry Kane in attack? Is there a plan? Who knows?
However, don’t be mistaken: this England squad is talented. Whether Gareth Southgate has built a good team – one capable of reaching the latter stages of EURO 2020 – is what remains to be seen.