Despite the considerable preparation already put into England’s chances this summer, the postponement of Euro 2020 by 12 months should have come as music to Gareth Southgate’s ears.
England were the favourites to lift the trophy at Wembley this year, and had been for a great number of months, but they’ll be even better suited to going toe-to-toe with Europe’s elite next year. Come June and July 2021, England could be as good as they’ve ever been.
An impassioned and responsible letter from Southgate was sent out to fans on social media last week, urging them to understand that football is simply a “beautiful distraction” and that “now is clearly not the time for us to take centre-stage.”
Anyone else may have called on an advisor to write the piece for them, simply signing their name at the end. But Southgate will have written that himself. He loves nothing more than his country and its welfare, and that’s – with some irony – precisely why his job is secondary at the moment.
When the football resumes – and it could be a good while yet – England could be playing in the June friendlies, scheduled to be against Austria and Romania. Or they could be starting the new season of the UEFA Nations League. Or, with the Euros postponed, both the friendlies and Nations League could well be cancelled altogether. The honest truth is that no-one knows.
What we do know is that the European Championships will be held next summer, and it gives England and all the players on the fringes ample time to show their worth and lay down a marker to a sometimes nice and sometimes ruthless, but seemingly always underestimated, manager in Southgate.
Where England were looking likely to go into the tournament with a shaky and inconsistent Jordan Pickford between the sticks, Dean Henderson, Nick Pope and others now have a period to improve their distribution. Southgate is immovable in the way his side plays, and an air of comfort and composure with the ball between their feet would surely send Henderson and Pope to the top of the pile, rising above a goalkeeper who has maximised his talents for England, but who may have come to the end of the road – at least for now.
Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker may both find it hard to repeat their heroics from Russia 2018 next year. Indeed, they may not even get the chance. England are blessed at right-back to a staggering degree. If those two and Trent Alexander-Arnold and Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Reece James could all be squeezed into an England squad, they would be.
The latter three look set to contest that position for the next five years at the very least. If you wanted to place a bet on Southgate once again taking three right-sided fullbacks to a major tournament, now would be a good time to do so.
Who will join the bullish yet elegant Harry Maguire in a four-man backline is another key decision Southgate will have to make. Rather than having to decide in the next few months, an extra year – COVID-19 permitting – should offer an abundance of football from which to select the lucky man. Joe Gomez will feel it should be him, as will Tyrone Mings at Aston Villa, but who knows what the next year will bring? Could it even be Ben White at Leeds if they get promoted?
So many questions, but now so much time with which to answer them.
Ben Chilwell has taken to senior international football like an unphased stallion, and the likes of Luke Shaw are now watching on as reserves in that position. But even left-back looks like it may finally become a closely contested position, after years of mediocrity under Southgate and Roy Hodgson before that. Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka has been converted from a cute winger into a combative wingback by Mikel Arteta in recent months. England could benefit.
The Three Lions’ defensive midfield area is by a long way the weakest position in the team, but many would argue against world class tournament opposition, it is the key area above all others in which a match is won or lost. Luka Modrić and Frenkie de Jong exploited Southgate’s side in those areas as England made successive semi-final exits in the last two years.
Declan Rice and Eric Dier have looked far off the pace this season, having previously forged reputations as strong generals able to break up play and protect the backline from threat. Harry Winks and Jordan Henderson have had much better campaigns, but they’re more comparable to No 8s than to Gareth Barry- or Southgate-style players.
But that void needs filling. England need a good holding midfielder. They need one soon, and Southgate needs to find one. Perhaps looking down to the youth teams and someone like Hamza Choudhury could be the solution. Or Leeds again, and Kalvin Phillips. Find someone, and then make him even better.
Further up the pitch, England find themselves almost limitless in attacking midfield, where creativity can be found throughout the Premier League. Jack Grealish, James Maddison, Dele Alli, Mason Mount, Ross Barkley, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Phil Foden and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain offer a bucket load of talent. Could Todd Cantwell edge his way in; could Jesse Lingard find form and make an unlikely return? Many of those would have had to miss out this year in a tight 23-man squad, but by next year it could well be that the best of the bunch come to the fore by enjoying phenomenal seasons.
In Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, England have three unpredictable wingers. But unpredictable in a wonderful way. All three can unlock a defence singlehandedly, and only two can play at once, but the more game-changers a team has, the better. England have significant armour on the flanks then, but in 12 months’ time, that armour could be more and better.
Sterling is in rusty form and Rashford is experiencing a long spell out, but in a year’s time, both could be more set up to expose and embarrass excellent opposition.
Callum Hudson-Odoi is already an experienced Premier League player at Chelsea. A year to sharpen up on end product and consistency – but more pertinently get back into some sort of routine unhindered by injury – could mean he can add to an already highly competitive position. Reiss Nelson and Dwight McNeil will also want a bit of the action. Their time will come.
For England though, the position of forward will benefit from the postponement more than any other. Harry Kane’s loss – intertwined with Son Heung-Min’s – has pulverised Spurs’ hopes of a good first season under José Mourinho, but it would have done similar damage to England’s Euro hopes this summer if (as was likely) he had travelled but been off the pace.
With a hungry, ruthless, poacher of a Harry Kane – anything at all similar to the one who scooped up the worst ever World Cup Golden Boot in 2018 – Southgate’s team are near-infinitely better. Tammy Abraham, Callum Wilson, Danny Ings and Dominic Calvert-Lewin would have grouped together to deputise as best they could if Kane had been ruled out of Euro 2020. But an England including Harry Kane is one that any team on earth would fear – as they should.
Three Lions fans watched the worst England side this century perform better than any other, in Russia. Next there came a very honourable showing in the Nations League. Then England’s qualification campaign for the European Championships, against admittedly abject opposition, saw a quite incredible goals-per-game count of more than 4.6. The men in red and white are only getting better.
There had been a feeling for a while that, on home soil, England at Euro 2020 would perform exceptionally. And perhaps they would go on to show that “you can win anything with kids,” even in international football.
Eventually, belatedly, England will host the European Championships once more. And the team might just perform better than they would have done this summer. It’s a pleasing thought, and only one thing can test it: time.