Welcome to life dangerous month. By the end of the strangest and most fractured build-up in any modern tournament, English footballers have at least avoided a familiar trap.
Too often it has been a story of boredom and outdated systems, hotel vacancies and just waiting for things to begin.
Sven-Göran Eriksson has spent those endless tournament training sessions wandering the training ground chatting with David Beckham. Good then. We play 4-4-2. The team is the team. Now David. Another round?
At one point during the 2010 World Cup, Jermain Defoe and Wayne Rooney were reduced to spending an evening in Rooney’s bedroom watching the entire DVD recording of his wedding.
Fast forward to a week’s preparation for Euro 2020 and one thing seems clear. It won’t be boring. With six days to go, England’s players, supporters and opponents still have no clear idea of their starting squad or starting lineup.
The manager will have a clearer view. But the alarming truth is that the main question remains largely unanswered. And right now, England are dangerously close to the strangest of results, where their two most talented creative players, their two best ball keepers, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish, are unable to make their way through the system.
Southgate maintains he knows his best team, with one exception. But whatever plan of attack will always have to be pulled out of the sky without any sustained training.
The basic formula always goes like this. And yes, it is a complex and badly formatted equation, for complex and badly formatted times. Right now England’s best attack = (Harry Kane) + (x + y), but only where Kane + (x + y) presents the quality “rhythm”; and where if x = Foden then y cannot = Grealish.
This changes when Kane + (x + y) is introduced into a 4-3-3 formation, which opens up a whole new set of variables. So far, Southgate doesn’t seem willing to call 4-3-3 against better teams in the absence of Harry Maguire. That may change for the Croatia game. He probably should.
So where are we with this? Who are the starters? Until recently it was assumed that the default options x and y were Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford as wide players. Both have a ‘man in possession’ feel. Southgate and Kane both react well to speed on offense.
Two things present themselves at this stage. First off, Southgate wants to play Mason Mount but won’t trust him as part of a two-way pivot, so Mount has probably reached the top three now. Secondly, Foden, Grealish and indeed Mount seem to simply offer more, to be clearly better, more technical attacking footballers.
And take a closer look and Southgate has pretty much moved on from those first three. The last time Kane, Rashford and Sterling started together was in the 6-0 victory in Bulgaria two years ago, and before that in a series of games when England were set to a 4 -3-3.
More recently, Southgate has tended to favor Kane, one from Sterling / Rashford, over another. In this equation, Sterling and Rashford are now aiming for a place. And Sterling will win this battle. He might have had a bad season – and when Sterling hurts, he really hurts, a player for whom the ball is suddenly square. But Sterling also has 12 England goals and 10 assists since the World Cup.
In addition, there is the Kane effect. Kane has scored in 15 games for England since 2017, only one where Sterling has not started. Sterling is his most consistent assistant. This chemistry has been a determining element in this team. Southgate will surely reach it now.
Right now, the last member of those top three is surely Mount, who is a wonderful footballer, who can score, create, support, cover, take set pieces.
A forward five from Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson / Kalvin Phillips, Sterling, Mount and Kane is a good forward five, upscale and hardworking. And yet he retains that familiar lack of technical mastery of the ball, the ability to change the tempo of the game, to hold the ball in any type of space, all of which are recurring failures of the English tournament.
This harvest from England has these qualities. In Foden he has an English midfielder talent unlike any other in recent memory, and in Grealish a totally fearless ball handler. And yet, out of caution, by covering other possibilities, we have come to a scenario where neither can actually enter the XI.
Two more things could derail this possibility. Southgate could just overcome his terror of a back four without Maguire. This would allow Mount to be included in the three exchanges and free up space for either Foden or Grealish (voice of narrator: “Foden”) up front. This is the most attractive result and one that could still materialize given the clues offered after the match against Romania.
The other thing is the events. Things are happening. Several substitutes are authorized for these euros. Other shapes and combinations will present themselves. The games will get shattered, the chemistry will ignite. There is a strong possibility that England will end up with a very different starting XI by the end.
And why not make this team evolve on the hoof? There is a theory that Southgate became obsessed with England’s bad victory, England’s bad model, that he was too charmed by the solid second half against Belgium in October 2020, after which Southgate raved at length about defensive details and “compact cover positions”.
England also needed an uncertain penalty and a deflected shot against Belgium. And they have won other games. The visceral, counterattacker 3-2 against Spain. Or how about the one that escaped, the 4-0 against Iceland in November 2020, in which Southgate fielded a back three with Rice and Mount as the pivot, Bukayo Saka at the back and Kane, Grealish and Foden as the first three?
Iceland were poor opponents. But this England XI has never been seen since. Would they really be in a worse position if it was that victory that Southgate had been won with, if this more progressive side, closer to the Premier League champions in their poise, able to defend by keeping the ball, had had a few points? more -outs? Would anyone expect these euros of despair less?
The real fear at this point is a slow start with crowd darlings Grealish and Foden unable to find a spot: dealing with the sympathies of a changing and anguished English crowd will be a factor in this tournament as well.