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Can Southgate’s Gamble Pay Off?

License: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Southgate_2023.jpg Author: Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street
England manager Gareth Southgate has made some controversial decisions regarding his Euro 2024 squad and starting lineup.

Staff writer Oliver Harrison weighs up the consequences of England manager Gareth Southgate’s decisions regarding his EURO 2024 squad.

Gareth Southgate made a gamble in his squad selection for EURO 2024. Often criticised for his loyalty to players that have served him in the past, 12 members of his 2022 World Cup squad have been omitted on this occasion. “You’re trying to balance experience with younger players who are playing so well that we can’t ignore what they’re doing.” At first glance, Southgate’s press conference comments suggest that he is taking a risk by abandoning his loyalties.

This narrative of a gamble – of replacing treble-winning Jack Grealish with Rotherham-playing Adam Wharton – is not entirely true, however. In reality, certain senior players are effectively ineligible: Harry Maguire (63 appearances under Southgate) finished the season injured; Jordan Henderson (52 appearances) spent half the season in Saudi Arabia; Raheem Sterling (55 appearances) and Marcus Rashford (57 appearances) have each had the worst season of their careers. Southgate admits that ‘regenerating the group’ has ‘been accelerated because of the availability of others’; his hand was forced.

England have lost many attributes which led to success under Southgate. The most glaring loss is that of experience and leadership in the absence of Maguire, an ex-Manchester United captain, and Henderson, who captained Liverpool to their first league title in 30 years. Conor Coady, James Maddison and Jack Grealish also previously influenced the dressing room as captains of Wolves, Leicester City and Aston Villa. The average age of the new inductees is 25; that is not to say they have the wrong attitude, but their inexperience, particularly at the international level, may disrupt a stable, unified team spirit that is arguably Southgate’s biggest achievement in the job.

Rashford and Sterling have also been fundamental to recent England sides, becoming emblematic of a team that stuck together through moments of hardship, particularly involving racism. On the pitch, their pace and intelligent runs provided crucial outlets (Sterling is still Southgate’s second highest scoring player despite not featuring since 2022) that few members of the current squad can reproduce.

Perhaps most important of all is the intangible quality of simply being an England player. When stripped of the Manchester United captaincy, Maguire still formed an elite pairing with John Stones in Qatar. While Henderson was generally perceived as dull for Liverpool, he suited Southgate’s system, controlling games and scoring crucial goals. In contrast, new additions to the squad like Lewis Dunk and Ollie Watkins have impressed for their clubs but have underperformed in recent international breaks.

Southgate’s ‘gamble’ means that players that had attended previous tournaments as rotation options have now been promoted to the starting 11: barring Mark Guéhi, all consistent starters have featured at major tournaments before.

Against Serbia, Jude Bellingham and Trent Alexander-Arnold worked the ball between each other with ease and nonchalance, and Guéhi was exemplary. However an early Bellingham goal papered over some cracks: Harry Kane had only one shot, Phil Foden hardly impacted the game, and only two big chances were created.

Against Denmark, the cracks widened as England’s only goal came from a sleeping Victor Kristiansen and a muddled cross which barely reached Kane. While no one can be blamed for Martin Hjulmand’s equaliser from range, England should have controlled better and created more, but Bukayo Saka and Foden were isolated on the wings and the midfield trio of Declan Rice, Bellingham and Alexander-Arnold did not seem to know their jobs as they took up awkward positions at inopportune distances from the front and back lines, making passing networks disjointed and forcing 17 long balls from Jordan Pickford.

By the final group game against Slovenia, tactics changed but attacking output did not. Conor Gallagher replaced Alexander-Arnold, but for all his industry he only won two duels and was substituted at half time. Foden and Bellingham interchanged positions between the left flank and centre of midfield, which was successful in the previous international break, but in this instance Bellingham was left ineffective and frustrated.

Throughout the second half, however, things changed. Gallagher was replaced by newcomer Kobbie Mainoo, who was more influential in build-up with his intelligent positioning that occupied defenders, and more assured in defence. Cole Palmer brought some life to the right wing. After Anthony Gordon came on 89 minutes through and properly played the role of a winger – rather than a midfielder playing out wide – fans saw five minutes of what the team could be, and the teaser was exciting.

England entered the Round of 16 against Slovakia with the same line-up besides Mainoo starting over Gallagher. Unsurprisingly, they were marginally better but faced similar issues and conceded early on. Saved in the final minute only by Bellingham’s individual quality, England scored again to win the game in the first minute of extra time, energised by substitutes Palmer, Toney and Eze, who all combined for the second goal.

It is difficult to tell whether the new inductees can fill the boots of the old guard but we will never know if they only play for the last 20 minutes. England’s defensive record is already amongst the tournament’s best, ranking behind only Spain and Germany for expected goals against per 90. With a team that appears revitalised by its comeback last round, if Southgate can properly implement a system which balances the attacking virtues of England’s established stars with the facilitative qualities – particularly in a pressing sense – of the newcomers, it may yet be coming home.

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