smarterscout SPECIAL REPORT: England at the Euros
Has there ever been a more talented player pool for England's men's football team? It's hard to think of a squad with more young players who are indisputably among the world's most exciting prospects, with a good number of blue-chip veterans as well. But of course, that means decisions.
After an unfortunate injury to Trent Alexander-Arnold, Gareth Southgate again has 26 players going to the European Championships this summer. So who should start? Who fits together? And which positions should the most versatile ones play?
Here's our attempt to solve Southgate's dilemmas. We're going to encourage him to move away from his predictable 4-2-3-1. Then we'll start with GK and work our way forward:
Jordan Pickford is the obvious choice for us. He's had his bumps in the road, but he's back to a reasonably high level as an outfield player and a shotstopper – far and away the safest pair of hands. But Sam Johnstone and Dean Henderson are both better in ground duels, so if a sweeper keeper is called for against a rapid set of forwards, perhaps including Adam Hlozek, one of them might fit the bill. Otherwise, it's Pickford all the way.
Southgate must dream about RBs, since he initially selected four for the squad. Here are the three who remain:
There's just no arguing with Reece James in our overall ratings. The guy is everywhere, doing almost everything. He hasn't been a big crosser for Chelsea, but he showed plenty of range during his loan at Wigan. Still, Kieran Trippier may have the advantage if aerials are the order of the day, and he's also a shade better on the dribble. Kyle Walker is excellent in the air, too, and can also play on the right side of a back three. He's the best tackler of the trio, though James isn't far behind.
We don't know if Southgate will ever play three at the back – if so, the only player with significant experience at CCB is Conor Coady. But Coady is a weak defender there and even weaker at RCB. So it has to be John Stones or recent addition Ben White:
In fact, we wonder what Southgate was going to do if Stones had gone down with injury. Maybe he would have had to play with three CBs after all! We think he'll go with Stones for his ball retention and experience, but White has been an exceptional defender – including outstanding work as a tackler – and shouldn't be ignored.
Moving on, the choice on the left side is just as obvious to us: the chronically underrated (if not underpriced) Harry Maguire:
Maguire is almost unbeatable in the air at both ends of the pitch, and his overall ratings are also far superior to those of Tyrone Mings. We can't really understand the fascination with Mings among some England supporters, but we can say that Mings offers more long-range passing if Southgate needs to play directly. Maguire usually prefers to bring the ball forward himself.
When Maguire isn't on the dribble for Manchester United, he's often linking up with Luke Shaw. And Shaw has had a dominant season at LB:
Now Ben Chilwell is no slouch – far from it – but the two players' styles are pretty similar, and Shaw is just that much better in ground duels. That said, if Southgate needs more strength in the air, or someone to play LWB in front of a back three, then Chilwell's skill might offer a bit more.
That's it for the defenders, so what about the midfield? In the middle of the park, Jordan Henderson is the only player over age 25. But if Southgate doesn't feel like he needs so much experience in his midfield general, Declan Rice can be the calm in the storm:
Rice's great ball retention, a byproduct of his phenomenal skill on the ball, makes the 22-year-old an attractive choice. Kalvin Phillips can be a force in the air on dead balls, but his other numbers don't quite inspire. Henderson isn't as aggressive as he used to be, but he's still a high-quality defender who's reliable in the air in open play.
And then there's Jude Bellingham. We put him on the next chart, because his startling numbers at DM are almost matched by his ratings at CM:
Yes, he's 17 years old. But Bellingham is just too good to leave on the bench. He's a poor finisher, though, so it makes sense to use him as a DM who can bring the ball forward. Of course, if there's any player whose presence in England's starting XI is non-negotiable, it's Mason Mount. His numbers are among the best in the world at any position. These guys have to play.
But where should Mount line up? He's not too shabby at CAM either:
Jack Grealish may have started at CAM in England's last warm-up before the tournament, but he hasn't played there much. Nor has Jadon Sancho in recent times. Whatever the formation, Mount needs to be the spearhead of the England midfield. Let the other guys do their damage from wide areas, right?
On that note, here's what England can call on at RW, though the players haven't spent too much time there lately, either:
That said, Sancho played more than 2,000' at RW in the Bundesliga and Champions League in 2018-19, with excellent attacking output. Raheem Sterling was also more of a RW up through 2018-19, before Pep Guardiola inverted him. In 2020-21, though, Bukayo Saka was the most tenacious defender and the best tackler of the three.
Saka scored a few goals for Arsenal from RW, but Sancho and Sterling are much better finishers. So we'll look for Saka as more of a late-game wildcard. Sterling probably offers the biggest goal threat, but if Harry Kane wants to pop up in the space to the GK's left, it might be better to have Sancho passing to him.
Speaking of Kane, here are England's CFs:
Marcus Rashford and Sterling can both play down the middle, too, but it's a safe bet that these guys will get most of the minutes up front. Kane is one of the world's best finishers in open play, and he discovered an impressive passing touch in 2020-21 as well. Fortunately, Dominic Calvert-Lewin has a very different skill set, almost unstoppable in the air and a strong defender as well.
We've left LW for last, because it offers the best chance for the kind of effervescent magic with which players like Paul Gascoigne once thrilled England fans:
Grealish and Phil Foden are two insanely talented players, and Grealish has a small edge in almost every rating that matters. Grealish is more of a playmaker than Foden, who likes to score himself. But if England really need goals from LW, then Rashford has to come into the picture by virtue of his extraordinary finishing skill. He doesn't take a bad penalty, either.
So where does this leave us? For a typical opponent, we'd recommend a 4-3-3:
Pickford; James, White, Maguire, Shaw; Rice, Bellingham, Mount; Sterling, Kane, Grealish
We think this lineup puts the most possible talent on the pitch in the positions that suit them best. Maguire can run things at the back, allowing White to come into the team as something like a sweeper. But if a more direct, aerial approach is needed, perhaps a 3-5-2 might look like this:
Johnstone; Walker, Stones, Mings; Trippier, Sancho, Henderson, Mount, Chilwell; Calvert-Lewin, Rashford
Johnstone and Mings can lump the ball forward, with Stones providing security on the ball and Trippier banging in crosses. Henderson and Chilwell provide extra aerial strength. And up front, Calvert-Lewin can bring the balls down while Rashford – himself outstanding in the air – can run around and poach. It's not the most talented lineup, but horses for courses....
One final note: UEFA have decided to allow five substitutions at the Euros, and so Southgate – like all the coaches at the tournament – should consider how he can use groups of players to change games. This squad is deep enough to offer a multitude of different setups, but will Southgate dare to get creative?