In 1966, England’s leading marksman, Jimmy Greaves, got himself injured in the third group game of the World Cup. England went on to win the tournament on home soil. Greaves was one of Harry Kane’s heroes, albeit these are two men from decidedly different eras.
New Year’s Day presented the current England captain with his own Greaves tournament-year-yikes moment, as he limped off clutching his hamstring against Southampton. Greaves’ injury came during the tournament and produced a scar which required 14 stitches. Kane will have surgery, and is not expected to return to training until April – although he does have a history of recovering from these setbacks faster than anticipated.
It means that England will either start their Euro 2020 campaign without Kane, or with a version lacking game-time, fitness and form. The injury has prompted speculation as to who will lead the line for England in their March friendlies against Italy and Denmark. But there may also need to be similar considerations for the tournament itself, just six months away now.
Jamie Vardy, along with defender Gary Cahill, unofficially retired from international duty after the World Cup, deciding that only if Gareth Southgate really needed him would he make himself available for the national team. Vardy had travelled as the Three Lions’ second-choice striker to both Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup. It’s an enormous commitment to work so gruellingly hard for six weeks, knowing a cameo appearance against Panama may be the only time you strip down from tracksuit to match kit.
Vardy is the Premier League’s top scorer, with a whole host of pundits lauding him a better player now than when he fired 5,000-to-one outsiders Leicester City to the most unlikely of Premier League titles.
Tammy Abraham would be the obvious choice. A similar sort of striker to Kane, he scored prolifically at youth level for England, as well as during most of his loan spells. This season, as Frank Lampard’s preferred forward for Chelsea, has been no different. Abraham notched his first international goal in England’s 1000th game, back in November. He will fancy his chances of shooting to the top of the pack if Harry Kane fails to recover in time for the finals.
England scored an average of well over four goals per game in the European Championship qualifiers, and the collection of players at the top of the Premier League goalscoring charts suggests they could be rampant again at the tournament itself. Of the league’s seven top scorers, only Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is not a full England international.
Kane and Raheem Sterling currently prop up this list, with Vardy at the summit. Completing the line-up are Abraham, Manchester United’s ever-more-clinical Marcus Rashford, and, in second place, a man few expected would have the season he is having – Danny Ings of Southampton.
Everything Ings touches is turning into gold in England’s top-flight this season. His sole Three Lions cap came over four years ago – a meaningless substitute appearance in an already-wrapped-up victory in Lithuania. Is he becoming an option for Southgate too? He has certainly thrown himself into the mix with his relentless goalscoring.
Callum Wilson of Bournemouth and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, potent in the early stages of Everton’s Carlo Ancelotti era, deserve mentions too.
All the indications suggest England will continue to score freely and mercilessly if they retain their current system at the Euros. Of course, Southgate is dangerously close to losing his only world-class striking option, but there are clearly more-than-worthy understudies waiting in the wings.
Talking of wings, Sterling, Rashford and Jadon Sancho will create many opportunities for themselves even if England’s forward area fails to produce for whatever reason. Behind them will lie one or two of Ross Barkley, Mason Mount, Dele Alli, James Maddison, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or even Aston Villa’s uncapped Jack Grealish – European-style players capable of fashioning excellent opportunities for themselves and others.
The thought of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ben Chilwell’s deliveries into the box is sure to have any England striker licking his lips. Those that find themselves in the pipeline have immense competition, but someone has to win.
In defensive areas though, England have looked fragile and uncertain. Gareth Southgate is cheery but with a quiet ruthlessness. For him, the six goals his team conceded against underwhelming opponents in qualifying are six too many.
Michael Keane had a good run in the side, but good only in length, not so much in the standard he reached. Tyrone Mings looked assured, but then he ought to be assured against Bulgaria. John Stones continues to test the patience of Pep Guardiola; he can’t find the fitness nor consistency to nail down a regular starting spot for the defending league champions.
Joe Gomez looks to have settled back into Liverpool and Jürgen Klopp’s plans, whilst the qualifiers, for Chelsea’s prospect Fikayo Tomori, lasted just seven minutes. That’s the shortest England career ever, although we can expect the manager to have a second glance at the Canadian-born defender before the tournament opener against Croatia on 14th June.
Between the posts, Jordan Pickford has been England’s undisputed number 1 for some time now, but is yet to enjoy an impressive domestic campaign with Everton. His poor club form is bound to catch up with him on the international stage at some point…
Southgate’s England has a worse goals-conceded-per-game record than Roy Hodgson’s had. However, current Crystal Palace manager Hodgson failed to get to the business end of any international tournament, meaning the opponents his side faced look kinder on paper than those England have tackled since 2016 under Southgate.
However, their clinical form at the other end helped them score at least four goals in seven of their ten fixtures in 2019. Inspecting the records of even the world’s top sides, that really is exceptional, in the true meaning of the word. Gareth Southgate’s side, in its attacking output, has become an incredibly efficient outfit. But defensive frailties still linger.
For the neutral at least, England should prove a very entertaining prospect at Euro 2020. They can’t stop scoring. But they can improve defensively.