England an impossible job no more given talent at Southgate’s disposal

Alea iacta est. The die, after endless beard-scratching permutation, is cast. Squad chemistry has been distilled, club finals waited out, and the story cycle of Trent and the fourth-place right-back slot enshrined in the national myth kitty for centuries to come.

And so here we are with a list of names. The intangibles around England’s Euro 2020 squad have finally been unravelled, options refined, full-backs stockpiled. It is now time to cross the Rubicon into these delayed Covid Euros, and a period of high-summer crisis that will, rightly or wrongly, define Gareth Southgate’s time as England manager.

In the end there were no major surprises. No need here for the smooth noodling sounds of Kenny G as Southgate – always more of a Britpop figure – shed seven of his training squad with a minimum of fuss.

Trent Alexander-Arnold is in, which was always the correct decision. Sport is about talent, character and achievement. For two years Alexander-Arnold was one of the best full-backs in Europe. He swallowed his own poor form through the season’s endgame. He can pass a ball with every part of his right foot, can do extreme things, break a game open. Any 26-man England squad that can’t find a place for this level of talent risks losing the public interest.

What does seem odd is the wealth, the glut of defenders: 10 of them, including four right-backs, compared with five midfielders. But that accent on defensive versatility does at least speak fluently to Southgate’s priorities. Perhaps England really can paint Europe a shade of right-back this summer.

Only eight players remain from the 2018 World Cup. That squad was drawn from 11 Premier League clubs. This one comes from 15 clubs and includes three players from overseas leagues, the first in an England tournament squad since Owen Hargreaves and David Beckham in 2006.

Harry Maguire will take his injured ankle to the Euros, such is his tactical importance. Otherwise Southgate has got off pretty lightly, with Joe Gomez the only serious absentee. For all the grumbling about timings and workloads, he has no excuses on personnel.

Among the offcuts James Ward-Prowse has cause to feel disappointed. But the fact remains Jordan Henderson is at another level, a midfielder with a body of work, and a status in European football that may just make a dent in the occasion. He was always coming back in.

As for Jesse Lingard, sometimes a 28-year-old footballer will have a run of form. It doesn’t always demand fireworks. Ollie Watkins will also be disappointed, but he might also be proud to have made it this far this quickly.

Otherwise the usual fiddling at the edge of the squad feels like a weirdly overpromoted subplot. Look back through tournaments past and is there a case to be made that Adam Lallana, Jake Livermore, and Lewis Cook might have altered England’s destiny as Luka Modric steadily devoured their midfield, that Danny Drinkwater was the missing spark in the collapse against Iceland?

In practice, tournament football is not a mass squad game. We have that list of players now. But this has only ever really been about what Southgate does with them.

So what have we got? Jadon Sancho is a significant presence. It is in his area of the pitch that Southgate’s loyalties, his risk‑averse nature, may come to bite him. On form, and indeed on basic footballing skills, Sancho should start ahead of Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford as the thrust in England’s attack.

Sterling and Rashford either side of Harry Kane may be the default option. Form and class say Sancho and Phil Foden. Southgate has every excuse here to put his most expressively talented attacking players on the pitch at the start of a tournament. Will he stay true to his occasionally revolutionary spirit? Or take the path of least resistance?

This is one area of interest. Another is how successfully Southgate can enact his – commendable – fluidity on formations. The evidence suggests strong opposition will get the back three, weaker teams the back four (we can only picture the high dudgeon in Zagreb as Southgate wheels out his “minor nation” back four, the tactical equivalent of swiping left).

There is a danger Southgate will be hostage to the fashionable vice of “overthinking”, a charge that shouldn’t worry him. This is still England football, a place where any kind of thinking, any kind of tactical plan, is to be celebrated. But he has also given himself a lot of work to do with only 10 days to the start of the Euros.

Plus of course there is a danger, as he pores over the minute gradations of a James, a Trippier, a Walker, of becoming bogged down in his own innate caution. As things stand the England XI is likely to be made up of five defenders, two deep midfielders, plus Mason Mount, Sterling and Kane. Is this really the best use, the most stirring deployment, of a rare wealth of talent?

This is the real point about that squad list. Just read the names and for the first time there is pressure on Southgate. It is a powerful, classy, well-rounded group of players. This hasn’t always meant much. Going to Russia, England’s top scorer was Danny Welbeck with 16 goals (third top was Ashley Young) but the effect was a kind of liberation. Here there are no holes, no get-outs, no obvious weak spots.

Add to this the fact England have a fine record in two previous home tournaments, at a time when home advantage really will be a bonus point. Factor in the lack of through‑the-roof international teams out there (just some very good ones). There are so many obstacles in the way of actually winning the thing. But it is no longer the impossible job.

This might partially explain Southgate’s own public manner of late, which has veered between the sombre style of a high-end funeral director planning an unusually detailed family funeral, and a slight tensing up around that final selection.

Southgate delayed the announcement to his final training session. He fussed about the “unknowns”. He faffed about club football finals. He added to the pointless drama around Alexander‑Arnold by musing in public on the dynamics of their relationship.

And yet, there are still plenty of reasons to believe. Southgate has shown himself to be expert at managing the noise around England; and to have that rare thing, an identifiable plan, and a degree of stubbornness that might yet turn out to be just what this talented group requires.

This squad for a de facto home Euros is the fruit of eight years managing England teams, five years in the main job, and an unusually fine glut of playing talent. Over to you, then, Gareth.