By Ben Summer
As the COVID vaccine promises a tentative route out of our national melancholy, there’s a second light at the end of the tunnel. Against the odds, against the general trend, and perhaps against all reason, Euro 2020 will be happening this summer.
That’s right: Euro 2020, not 2021. Don’t ask why – and also don’t try to figure out why Uefa has stubbornly concluded that the competition will take place across 12 countries as originally planned.
Nonetheless, the behemoth rumbles on, and Gareth Southgate is tasked with assembling an England squad to raise the country’s morale. Southgate has been known to rely on a set of core players whose club form seems to have little impact – the likes of both Harrys Winks and Maguire, for instance – and has shown reluctance to bring in breakout talents like Jack Grealish.
However, with an ever-emergent crop of new English talents in the Premier League this season, it is worth considering whether any players have a shot at turning Southgate’s head and finding themselves a late place in the Euro squad.
Where better to start than Eberechi Eze? After a dazzling 2019/20 season at QPR, the big question was whether Eze could make it in the Premier League. A small seed of doubt was planted in the minds of QPR fans peering over the garden fence into Selhurst Park when, on his Palace debut, Eze tried one of his trademark tricks and proceeded to lose the ball in an ungainly fashion.
For the smallest of moments, you could be forgiven for wondering whether the ceiling of his talents was about to be exposed. Then, Eze went and scored a curling free-kick against Leeds, a magnificent solo run from his own half against Sheffield United, and the cheekiest touch-shift-slam-it-home goal against Wolves.
Whilst there are still some moments of naivety, Eze’s swagger and awareness have firmly landed in the Premier League. The main barrier for Eze however, is none other than previous hopeful outcast Jack Grealish. Having eventually clawed his way into the side, Grealish does a lot of what Eze does – some of it better, including his ability to generate momentum from a standstill and the ability to beat as many defenders as are willing to take him on.
If – and it’s a big if – Southgate is willing to depart from his largely defensive midfield setup, Grealish will likely be the first choice. Eze is undoubtedly one for England’s future but mainly shines in a ‘Number 10’ role in which he may be kept out of the side by the Aston Villa player ahead of him in the queue.
Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka has managed the transition from “underrated academy prospect,” to “overhyped Twitter fan-favourite” to “actually good,” and his ascendency has matched Arteta’s side in its return to form. Despite his obvious quality, Saka’s early England appearances looked nervy and betrayed his inexperience at senior level.
However, his prophetic form for Arsenal, alongside the likes of Smith-Rowe suggests he may be a late contender. An attempt to get into the mind of Southgate – admittedly a difficult task at times – may be hindered by two crucial factors.
Firstly, Saka’s a winger – a position that England find themselves overloaded in. When England choose to play wingers, Saka will find himself competing with Sancho, Rashford and Sterling. Additionally, Southgate has been known to shift some of his favoured midfielders to the left or right of a front three, before calling upon new blood.
Secondly, England doesn’t tend to play wingers at the moment. Jonathan Wilson’s excellent article in the Guardian pointed to England’s slightly boring formula as a recipe for success, reliant on establishing defensive discipline in the limited training sessions that an international side gets. Such a formation wouldn’t necessarily point to a player like Saka finding his way into the team.
If anything, the current England status quo calls for a player like Kalvin Phillips to edge his way into the side – solid if un-flashy and capable of covering spaces in a Leeds side that often leaves him with fairly minimal defensive support.
Another approach can be taken. Rather than looking to the level of talent in England’s young players, the focus can be where are there likely to be vacancies in the team. Southgate has his favourites and is unlikely to depart without his hand being somewhat forced. With Harry Kane, nominal backups Dominic Calvert-Lewin, and Danny Ings suffering from streaky injury records this season, the central striker position could be left vacant.
Southgate may just opt to shift Marcus Rashford over into the middle, but if not, he has a variety of options. However, the younger contingent of home-grown strikers have yet to stamp their name firmly on an England spot, with the likes of Ollie Watkins showing talent if not yet consistency. If anything, it would be unsurprising to see a slightly older striker – the likes of Patrick Bamford or Michail Antonio – squeezing in at the last minute.
A final option remains. A Manchester United outcast has put in a dominant performance and bagged a brace in his West Ham debut. Dare to think it, dare to whisper it – is it time for the Lingard renaissance?
Image: Euro Tickets2020 via Flickr