With England’s first Euro 2020 match against Croatia exactly four months away, Gareth Southgate is probably the first England manager in many a tournament to have such a wealth and range of riches at his disposal, to the extent that no one really knows what his best XI truly is. It is, in many ways, a good headache to have, but it has made any attempts to predict who will line-up against Croatia in June a particularly tough task. We at Palatinate Sport thought we would help show Southgate the light by choosing our strongest side.
Ben Fleming, Deputy Sport Editor (@Ben_Fleming)
(4-3-3) Pope; James, Maguire, Stones, Shaw; Rice, Henderson, Mount, Grealish, Kane, Rashford
In goal, Nick Pope has been the standout for me. Pickford has been in and out for Everton and Dean Henderson’s season spent on the bench at Manchester United should see the Burnley shot-stopper hold down a starting place. In defence, this season has seen a real resurgence for two players in particular: Luke Shaw and John Stones. These are two players who moved for big money early in their careers and seem to be blossoming this season with a renewed sense of confidence. Maguire seems the obvious partner for Stones, and whilst Alexander-Arnold, Wan-Bissaka and Chilwell could all stake a claim to the full-back spots, the consistency and capabilities of James and Shaw going forward and defensively mean that they get the nod.
The midfield is perhaps where England are weakest, and this somewhat workmanlike trio reflects this. Declan Rice has been much improved this season in his ability to progress the ball, whether via pass or dribble, and so he starts at the base of midfield. Henderson and Mount then provide that energy and shuttling in the middle of the park – Henderson side-to-side covering for the full-backs and Mount box-to-box as he has done so well for Chelsea under both Lampard and Tuchel this season.
Up front, two of the three names feel somewhat nailed already. The form of Jack Grealish and Harry Kane, for Aston Villa and Spurs respectively, has been scintillating and the two start on the left and centrally in my England front three. With Grealish starting wide left but drifting into pockets and Kane dropping deep to receive the ball, the pace and finishing ability of Rashford sees him start at right forward and playing a similar role to that of Heung-Min Son at Spurs – on the last line of defence and looking to run onto through balls from the creativity behind.
Dark horse: Harvey Barnes
Luke Power, Sport Editor (@LukePower_5)
(4-2-3-1) Pope; Wan-Bissaka, Stones, Coady, Shaw; Henderson, Ward-Prowse; Grealish, Rashford, Sterling; Kane
Right now, Nick Pope is the best option in net. Sadly, Dean Henderson hasn’t had much of a chance to wear his gloves this season, but his quality is undeniable and I’d happily bring him along. All the other goalkeepers are too useless to take. I’d invite Jordan Pickford to the training ground just to tell him he’s not involved, and banish him to the canteen to watch on forlornly.
I’m not very enthusiastic about our defenders. In another world, I’d play three right-backs and gain an extra player further forward. Alas, I yielded to convention and went for a back four. Aaron Wan-Bissaka might be a bit ‘old school’, but I appreciate how he prioritises defensive solidity. People will question Conor Coady’s inclusion over Harry Maguire, but I think Coady is a better distributor of the ball and a stronger leader. John Stones and Luke Shaw have, as Ben notes, been resurgent this season, and that explains their inclusion.
Jordan Henderson and James Ward-Prowse have the right blend of responsibility, diligence and vision. The especial advantage with Ward-Prowse is that he’s a set-piece taker of generational quality, and he could take our dead ball game to the next level. We are spoiled for choice with young, promising midfielders, but these two bring consistency.
The front four are probably unsurprising. It was tempting to place Maddison in the CAM position, but Grealish has proven this season that he is too fleet-footed and able to spark matches into life to be left out of this England team, who are often stunted when it comes to tournament football. The trio behind Harry Kane would provide the pace that he lacks and offer enough of a goal threat to mean we’re not overly reliant on him.
Dark horse: Danny Ings
Matt Styles, Sport Editor (@Matt_Styless)
(4-3-3) Pope; Wan-Bissaka, Stones, Maguire, Saka; Henderson, Grealish, Maddison; Sterling, Foden, Kane
I shall start by dittoing the sentiments made about Nick Pope. Jordan Pickford, while occasionally showing glimpses of his quality, and to his credit always being a loyal servant to England, simply has too many mistakes in him. Henderson may have been in the running if not for his curious decision to rot on the bench at Old Trafford, but Pope towers highest as the safest pair of hands.
Unlike Luke, I am enthusiastic about our defensive options. The John Stones renaissance has been something to behold, and while Joe Gomez’s injury is a blow Harry Maguire, despite the constant criticism levelled at him, is another experienced, ball-playing centre-half that should form a balanced pairing. Trent, too defensively inept these days, makes away for the thrilling Aaron Wan-Bissaka, while Arsenal’s dynamic star-man Bukayo Saka slots in at left-back, a position that he has previously thrived in. Reece James and Luke Shaw are unfortunate to miss out, as is the freakish dearth of full-back options available to England nowadays.
Many will argue that the midfield lacks balance, but the experience and diligence of Jordan Henderson should enable a suitable platform for two of the brightest sparks in the Premier League to blitz forward and make things happen. Rice can consider himself unfortunate not to make the cut, but in Henderson there is a wiser head who has done it all at club level.
With Sancho and Rashford blowing hot and cold the malleable Phil Foden has proved his worth this season and would be a welcome addition to the front three. Kane is the obvious choice centrally in spite of Calvert-Lewin’s meteoric rise to stardom, and though we may still hold grudges over *that* Croatia game, retaining the understanding between him and Sterling will be vital to our attacking fluency.
Dark horse: Ebere Eze
James Reid, Deputy Sport Editor (@Jamesreid261)
(4-3-3) Pope; Alexander-Arnold, Stones, Maguire, Shaw; Rice, Henderson, Foden Grealish, Kane, Sterling
In goal, Nick Pope takes the nod for me over Southgate’s favoured number one Jordan Pickford. The Everton stopper is simply too erratic, and his slight superiority with the ball at his feet does not make up for that.
England are bizarrely blessed with a plethora of right-backs but unfortunately, you can only play one. Trent Alexander-Arnold just about gets the nod for me, though his form will have to pick up if he is to ward off competition from Reece James and Kieran Trippier. Left-back is a straight shoot-out between Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell; form will decide that one. Centre-back is a clear weakness, though the recent upturn in John Stones’ form is encouraging. I am no fan of Harry Maguire but he is likely the best of a mediocre bunch unless Joe Gomez recovers from injury in time.
Jordan Henderson is an absolute guaranteed starter, bringing experience, leadership, energy, and an underrated passing range. I’d like to see him in the number 8 position, just ahead of Declan Rice. I was not initially a fan of Rice, but his performances this season have convinced me he is of the requisite quality, even if he is yet to fully convince in an England shirt. Phil Foden completes my midfield three. He is undoubtedly one of the most talented players this country has produced in years and it would be criminal to leave him on the bench. England have been rewarded previously when they have trusted youth, with the likes of Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney lighting up tournaments at younger ages than Foden.
The front three largely completes itself. Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling are obvious choices, having carried the attacking burden for England for many years now. Jack Grealish is less experienced at the international level, but his performances for Villa this season have been a delight to watch and he has really stepped up a level. Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho will be waiting in the wings, though both will need to become more consistent if they are to grab hold of a starting shirt.
Dark horse: Patrick Bamford
Our teams demonstrate a general hunger for youthful exuberance, exploiting the resources of a prospective golden generation to create vibrant, streetwise, free-flowing football using a back four. For all of this general agreement, however, a sense of dread permeates: will Lingard and Dier play? Will Trippier be lumped at left-back again? Will Rice and Phillips operate in a double pivot? Hopefully, Southgate will take inspiration from this and do what is right.