Gareth Southgate’s Euro countdown conundrums: The re-emergence of John Stones has the England boss considering return to a back four, he’s loaded with options at full-back… but are two defensive midfielders really necessary?
- England’s road to the 2022 World Cup begins against San Marino on Thursday
- This summer’s Euros are the current focus for manager Gareth Southgate
- The England boss has a lot of headaches ahead of the rearranged tournament
- Sportsmail examines how his Euro 2020 preparations are currently shaping up
The road to Qatar 2022 starts against San Marino at Wembley on Thursday, but it is the Euros that are at the forefront of Gareth Southgate’s thoughts.
The England manager saw his players for the first time since November on Monday, and with less than three months until the tournament kicks off, there are a host of unanswered questions.
Sportsmail examines how his Euro 2020 preparations are shaping up.
Gareth Southgate has plenty of headaches with three months to go until the rearranged Euros
Southgate has been consistent in his message: the door is never closed. Realistically, he is likely to already know at least 19 of the 23 he wants in his final squad.
The fiercest competition will be in attacking midfield. Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka, James Maddison, Mason Mount, Harvey Barnes and Jesse Lingard all have realistic hopes of making the final cut — though Barnes and Maddison, with only one cap each, may not fancy their chances. It is a problem for Southgate but one he will relish.
It is also congested at right back, with Southgate taking the shock decision to axe Trent Alexander-Arnold. Who’d have foreseen that at the start of qualifying, when it looked like Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier were being phased out?
Now those England stalwarts are back in the fold, and the emergence of Reece James has provided Southgate with another option. Alexander-Arnold is one of European football’s best full-backs, yet he can’t make the England squad.
Phil Foden’s fine form for Manchester City makes him one of many attacking midfield options
Three-man defence or back four?
England looked set to use the back-three system that served them so well at the last World Cup. After Russia 2018, Southgate experimented with a back four but without success.
However, Sportsmail understands the option of playing with a four-man defence has re-entered his mind in recent weeks, mainly due to the re-emergence of Manchester City defender John Stones.
Southgate likes the idea of pairing Stones with Harry Maguire in the heart of his defence and believes the partnership could help England in other areas of the pitch.
Southgate may feel he is too far down the line to tinker with his system, but last week he hinted at another change in shape.
‘We are a team who might benefit in different matches from having that opportunity to play different profiles of players in different systems,’ he said. ‘We know we are comfortable playing a couple of different ways and our players are intelligent enough to do that. That means we can adapt for certain opponents.’
The re-emergence of Man City defender John Stones has Southgate thinking about a back four
Who’s battling for a starting spot?
The most hotly contested fights could be for the full-back roles.
On the right, you have Walker, Trippier and James vying for the shirt. The smart money would be on Walker or Trippier starting, but Southgate has been extremely impressed by the way Chelsea youngster James has acclimatised to senior international football and he should not be disregarded, particularly if England stick with a back three.
Walker would also be the leading contender to play as the third centre back in a 3-4-3.
On the left flank, Ben Chilwell looked a shoo-in to start but Luke Shaw’s return to form for Manchester United has given Southgate something to think about.
Luke Shaw’s return to form for Man United has given Southgate something to think about
Sportsmail understands that Southgate has also earmarked Saka as a potential left wing-back if he decides to use that system. Chilwell has not been a regular for Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel, which may turn the tide in Shaw or Saka’s favour.
Declan Rice looks a nailed-on starter in central midfield, likely to be partnered by Jordan Henderson, though the Liverpool captain’s fitness could be an issue given he is not expected to return to action until the closing weeks of the season.
Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling will start in attack, leaving a fascinating race for that final forward slot. Marcus Rashford is favourite, but Foden’s performances for Manchester City have excited Southgate and his staff.
Rashford’s experience could prove key but Southgate is keen to harness Foden’s precocious ability. If fit, Jordan Pickford will keep his place in goal with Nick Pope as back-up.
Southgate has also earmarked Arsenal starlet Bukayo Saka (right) as a potential left wing-back
Who is Kane’s deputy?
This is arguably England’s biggest area of weakness ahead of the Euros. Kane is world-class but Southgate will be concerned about who can deputise for him.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin started the season brilliantly and scored his first international goal in the 3-0 win over Wales, then his second a month later during the win over the Republic of Ireland.
But the goals have dried up for Everton — he has only netted once in his last six outings. Danny Ings, Tammy Abraham and Callum Wilson have missed out due to injury. Settling on a plan B is becoming a real headache.
Ollie Watkins has been given the nod for these qualifiers and Patrick Bamford was name-checked by Southgate last week. Both will hope to make a late push but are unproven at international level.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s club form has cooled off after making a brilliant start to the season
Are two holding midfielders necessary?
That will depend on the opposition. Southgate likes to have two ‘pivots’, particularly against top teams. Rice and Henderson would surely fill those roles.
But there is an argument to play either Mount or Foden in central midfield to give England’s engine room some creativity.
Southgate is also a huge fan of Jude Bellingham’s box-to-box abilities and has been impressed by the teenager’s start at Borussia Dortmund. But at 17, starting Bellingham at a major tournament is a risk.
Expect Southgate to persist with playing two defensive-minded midfielders for the Euros, but Mount is the leading contender to play next to Rice or Henderson if the England manager decides to release the handbrake.
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