The news this week that, due to COVID-19, squads for this Euros are to be 26 players long rather than the traditional 23 was celebrated across England like the rumour of a new bank holiday. There was always a high chance that UEFA would make this decision, and it’s now all but a formality.
England manager Gareth Southgate has said before that he would prefer a squad of 23. He favours smaller squads on the grounds that they maintain focus and avoid a significant chunk of the group sitting and watching without match involvement. But Southgate finds himself in a rather unique situation this year. It’s a situation that few if any England managers have found themselves in before. Not only is his starting XI a contentious, polarising topic of debate, but such is the level of competitiveness among the country’s best players that even the squad has been hopelessly hard to call this time around.
Three extra players perhaps allows for a couple more creative sparks to travel, and less of a pragmatic selection. Here are nine players, plus a wildcard shout, who may benefit from an increased size of squad. It goes without saying that they can’t all benefit.Embed from Getty Images
The local lad from Liverpool who, for many, is quite comfortably the best right-back in the world. Gareth Southgate — whose view matters a great deal in terms of Alexander-Arnold’s career — doesn’t see it that way. In the 22-year-old, he sees a player with tremendous talent but who has rarely performed for his country. Alexander-Arnold only has 12 caps and has to date rarely been trusted in the Three Lions’ toughest fixtures. The whole Liverpool team have looked slightly (or, in some cases, miles) off the pace this season. He is recovering from his own personal drop-off now, though. Whether he plays his best football for England or not, whether right-back is England’s best position by a country mile or not, he could benefit from a 26-man squad. He may have been harshly axed in March, but will be back for sure. This summer? We shall see.
Out of sight, out of mind. That is how English football works. For all the recent talk about how much sense it makes for young English players to move abroad, it does also remove them from the spotlight. Kieran Trippier and Jadon Sancho have had excellent seasons in Spain and Germany respectively, but with many English fans’ eyes glued exclusively to the Premier League, they have rarely been mentioned in England discussions of late. Bellingham, the unerring 17-year-old midfield all-rounder, finally captivated an English audience when he dragged his Borussia Dortmund team through their toughest moments in what was ultimately Champions League quarter-final defeat to Manchester City. His goal wasn’t bad either. Excellent on the ball, committed in the tackle, there is now a very real chance that he could make the final squad. And all on merit. There wouldn’t be an ‘eye to the future’ about it.Embed from Getty Images
It took so long for Southgate to trust him. Then, just as he got his chance and absolutely took it (in the autumn Nations League fixtures), international football was cruelly taken away from Jack Grealish again. He’s now been injured for over two months, including missing the triple header of World Cup qualifiers in March. Grealish, when he has been fit, has looked every bit Aston Villa’s talisman this term. The whole country knows he has the raw ability, the crossing accuracy, the shot power, and the un-English ability to keep hold of the ball to prove himself a real asset this summer. If fit and crucially match-fit, he’s likely to travel. A 26-man squad increases that likelihood.
His club manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær calls him the best finisher Manchester United have. He should know. Greenwood has played once for England — in that strange win over Iceland in Reykjavík in September. He then broke lockdown restrictions in the team hotel alongside fellow newbie Foden and was sent home in disgrace. Since then, his form for Manchester United has suffered, and his senior international career is yet to recommence. His goalscoring has shot up in recent weeks, though. If Southgate is going to call on an extra wide-forward with this squad extension, Greenwood would be a good bet. The fact he can also play as a striker adds to his armoury; tactical versatility is vital at tournaments.Embed from Getty Images
Seen by many as the Gareth Southgate England player, Jesse Lingard is a good finisher, intelligent off the ball, chatty away from the pitch and liked by all of his teammates. Lingard’s career at United seemed not to have declined but rather to have all but terminated. Since moving to West Ham United, he has been one of the Premier League’s best players. In less than half a season, he has managed to make this the most prolific campaign of his career in terms of goals. Talk about playing yourself into form at the right time. Lingard might not get a lot of game-time, but he’d be mad not to be planning for a summer of international football now. What a turnaround.
Perversely, what lets Saka down is his versatility. His issue: that he is so good in so many different positions that it’s hard to know where he plays best or how he’d best fit England’s system. The 19-year-old did a brilliant job of filling in for the absent Ben Chilwell at left-back earlier in the season, but has been deployed as a right-forward most often for Mikel Arteta’s inconsistent but exciting young Arsenal side. There’s a terrific player in there — there’s no doubt about that. Perhaps this summer he won’t quite make the cut, but he won’t be far off. Southgate is sure to call on Saka more after the Euros.Embed from Getty Images
For two or three seasons, Sancho was used as the perfect example of why talented English players should move abroad if chances of game-time overseas are higher. His numbers show just how talented he is. But since the emergence of Foden, Grealish, Greenwood and a slightly poorer start to the season than normal in which he didn’t score a Bundesliga goal until the new year, Sancho’s name has slightly fallen out of the England conversation. Anyone in Germany will tell you that it should be straight back in immediately. A recent muscle tear kept him out for six weeks or so. England will be hoping he remains fit between now and the end of the season. His chances of featuring are certainly hiked by a larger squad size.
Trusted by Southgate when he was U21s manager, Ward-Prowse is now entering his prime and playing the best football of his career so far. Renowned pundits have called for his inclusion and for his involvement in key matches this summer almost exclusively due to his mesmerising set-piece technique. Pep Guardiola considers him the best free-kick taker he’s ever seen. It’s been so embarrassingly long since England had a half-decent one. Ward-Prowse’s game is of course based on more than just arching dead-balls into the top corners. His tackling has improved, his passing is assured. Ward-Prowse has dropped off just a little in recent weeks. If he finds that little bit extra as the season reaches its endpoint, his place on the plane (or, rather, bus) should be within grasp.Embed from Getty Images
The Aston Villa man crept into the first England squad of the year. When there, he made his mark. San Marino are hardly fierce opponents, but they defended well against England in the second-half of their March encounter. Watkins scored when England looked their most incapable — a golden first touch of the ball in international football. Villa have needed his goals in Grealish’s absence, and if Southgate decides that there is room in a 26-man squad for a third-choice striker, Watkins looks likeliest to be that man. The fact he was playing non-league football for Weston-super-Mare six years ago just goes to show that progression up the English football pyramid really is possible.
Patrick Bamford — The Wildcard
O how a city would rejoice if Patrick Bamford became an England player just in time for a major tournament. Leeds United supporters can’t get enough of the man, and his goals tally this season shows that there’s more to this slim and polite centre-forward than many of his doubters thought there was. Southgate admitted that Bamford was “very close” to making the March squad. He’ll have heard that and not quite known whether to laugh or cry. A late flurry of goals in the Premier League might just be enough to see him creep into the Euros squad. He shouldn’t expect much if any game-time if he does squeeze in, but you’d be hard-pushed to argue it’s unjustified if he is included at the 11th hour.