Gareth Southgate continues to promote youth as England begin Euro 2020 journey
Southgate's reshaped group contains 10 players with fewer than 10 caps; his reign shows newcomers can soon become pivotal
A qualifying group devoid of stardust. A squad depleted by injuries. For England, it may feel that 2018 never happened.
Obviously, one of the finest years in their history did, but after Gareth Southgate restored the sense there is something special about representing your country, this group started to resemble earlier gatherings, weakened by withdrawals while the club game feels more significant.
Meanwhile, reaching Euro 2020 could look a prosaic procession. Czech Republic, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Kosovo do not represent the most testing of opponents. There is none of the glamour of the fixture list of the much-mocked Uefa Nations League, which produced marquee, meaningful matches with Croatia and Spain. This could have altogether less tension.
And yet Southgate’s forward-thinking approach means it still contains intrigue. The England manager tends to pick with a purpose. His reshaped group contains 10 players with fewer than 10 caps; his reign shows newcomers can soon become pivotal.
Perhaps, then, a qualifier can fulfil the role friendlies used to, affording an opportunity to experiment. Southgate’s willingness to fast-track talent was evident in the way Chelsea's Callum Hudson-Odoi was promoted to the senior squad. The 18-year-old’s international debut could come before his first Premier League start, which would feel a rebuke of Maurizio Sarri.
Another uncapped Englishman already has three international appearances to his name. Such is the paradox of Declan Rice, newly anointed the Republic of Ireland’s young player of the year but having switched allegiances.
He will have different-coloured caps to accompany the multitude of man-of-the-match awards on his metaphorical mantelpiece. Rice will follow in the footsteps of the cricketer Eoin Morgan in representing first Ireland and then England.
His precocious displays for West Ham United suggest he may prove an upgrade as the holding midfielder on Eric Dier, who has had a stop-start season for Tottenham Hotspur, and Jordan Henderson, excellent a World Cup as the Liverpool captain had.
A first chance for some may not be a last for others, but Kieran Trippier represents another curiosity. One of only three Englishmen – along with the greats Bobby Charlton and Gary Lineker – to score in a World Cup semi-final accepted he was fortunate to be in the squad.
“I could have done a lot better this season,” he said this week. If he starts, it may be because Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has been in altogether superior form for Liverpool, was one of those to pull out.
Right-back has emerged as a position of strength, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s rise another indication of the talent of the next generation. So, too, has left-back, where Southgate dodged an initial decision by selecting all of Danny Rose, Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw before the Manchester United man pulled out.
In contrast, centre-back was pinpointed as a weakness by the Czech Republic’s Matej Vydra. In particular, one of England’s World Cup heroes was. Harry Maguire was sent off against Vydra’s Burnley on Saturday and the striker said: “In some moments it seems he doesn't know what's happening behind him.”
Maguire, though, is the senior centre-back in a group deprived of John Stones. Whereas Southgate looked to shield inexperienced defenders in a back five in Russia, now he has had a more attacking reboot to 4-3-3.
Any shortcomings could be more easily exposed and Maguire’s likely partners come from Burnley’s past and present, the former Ireland Under-19 defender Michael Keane and James Tarkowski. With only three specialist centre-backs in the squad, perhaps Dier or Kyle Walker could be pressed into service there.
If Southgate has too many options in attack, with the trio of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford securing the wins over Spain and Croatia and Jadon Sancho probably confined to another cameo, midfield represents more of a conundrum amid an ongoing search for creativity.
The six specialists in the squad include three essentially defensive midfielders, which suggests Ross Barkley, following his encouraging autumn, and Dele Alli will get the nod as the two No. 8s.
And yet a late call-up shows England are in a position of rare strength. Despite scoring six goals in 10 games, James Ward-Prowse was initially in the ranks of the in-form omissions, with Wan-Bissaka, Conor Coady, Chris Smalling and James Maddison, but injuries create chances.
Under Southgate, England’s players have tended to take them.
Updated: March 21, 2019 02:53 PM