There has been so much hype surrounding England ever since Gareth Southgate led the Three Lions to a surprising semi-final run in the 2018 World Cup. But after that overachievement now comes massive expectations heading into his second major tournament.
On paper, England certainly have the players right on par with the No. 1 team in the FIFA rankings and the reigning world champions. However, there are still question marks as to whether Gareth Southgate is capable of getting the very best out of this generation of Lions.
Let’s take a deeper look at England to see if they are truly one of the teams to beat heading into Euro 2020.
Talented squad gets deeper
There is a legitimate argument to be made that England possess the best collection of attacking talent in Europe at the moment.
They have a proven goalscorer in skipper Harry Kane, who is back to his best for Tottenham this season after suffering a hamstring injury that would have significantly impacted his form had Euro 2020 pushed through last year.
Barring any unforeseen setback, Kane will lead the line for the Lions and look to make some Euro 2020 highlights. And if he does get hurt again, England now have a good number of centre-forwards in Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Tammy Abraham, and Danny Ings who have emerged and can step into Kane’s shoes.
Meanwhile, the wide and attacking midfield positions are absolutely stacked. Jadon Sancho and Raheem Sterling are the favourites to start, with the likes of Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish, Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, and Mason Greenwood all vying for places on the bench.
Grealish’s emergence over the past year has now given England an elite playmaker who has the ability to unlock opposing defences – a piece that had been notably missing in the squad.
The defence is also looking in significantly better shape than it was than a year ago. Right wing-back remains ripe with options, from Kyle Walker to Kieran Trippier to Trent Alexander-Arnold to Reece James.
Left wing-back is looking just as deep. Luke Shaw has been in fine form at Manchester United and is set to challenge Ben Chilwell for the starting spot. Leicester’s James Justin and Saka are also fine young options on the left.
And perhaps most importantly, John Stones’ resurgence at Manchester City now gives England another reliable centre-back option alongside Harry Maguire. Walker can slot into the back three, and Tyrone Mings, Eric Dier and Michael Keane offer decent depth.
Southgate struggling to make all the pieces fit
But despite all the talent at his disposal, Southgate has struggled to put them all together into a cohesive unit. This was quite evident in their disappointing UEFA Nations League run as they finished third behind Belgium and Denmark.
Southgate stuck with his 3-4-3 formation during the group stage and experimented with different combinations of players, but they were far from convincing. The fact that Southgate took so long to include Grealish in the set-up was curious considering the Villa captain’s great form, and it’s fair to assume whether he sees Grealish as a main part of his plans.
Southgate was also unable to solve a significant problem with this formation, which is in midfield. Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice have their strengths, particularly in defence, but they lack the range of passing and creativity needed to provide a good balance between attack and defence in Southgate’s system.
Mason Mount got the chance to play in the middle later in the group stage, but there is still no definitive answer to that midfield question just yet.
The other glaring issue Southgate must resolve is goalkeeper. He has remained loyal to Jordan Pickford despite the Everton man’s struggles, and it remains doubtful whether Nick Pope or Dean Henderson can do enough for Southgate to make the change.
Are England truly an elite contender?
It is disappointing that Southgate’s England have seemingly made little progress since their brilliant World Cup run. Despite what the Euro 2020 odds say, England don’t seem like one of the three best teams in the continent and still have much work to do to compete with the likes of Belgium and France.
A case could be made that despite Southgate’s shortcomings, England’s depth in so many positions gives them a marked edge over other contenders, especially if injuries hit some key players over the course of a jam-packed 2021 season.
But even if England do have the best squad in the tournament, it still remains to be seen whether Southgate can get them playing a system that can unlock their full potential. His 3-4-3 still has significant question marks, and there’s not much time to change course now.
Perhaps the players’ familiarity with the system will finally bear fruit this summer. But if it doesn’t all work out as planned, what else does Southgate have up his sleeve that can get England to perform at an elite level during the Euros? We shall have to wait and see.
Disclaimer: Odds are correct at time of publish.
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