Gareth Southgate has named an exciting Euro 2020 England squad. Thoughts on Trent Alexander-Arnold, Bukayo Saka and Jesse Lingard are within.
The 26 men tasked with ending 427 years of hurt are here.
1) Gareth Southgate is owed many a grovelling apology, with reserves of humble pie most desperately needed on Merseyside.
It was perfectly justified to disagree with the apparent decision to drop Trent Alexander-Arnold, to point out how talented the 22-year-old is, list his achievements and praise his mental resolve in responding to his England squad omission in March so powerfully. But the reaction was unreasonably personal in many cases and elements of the media even gleefully stoked the partisan controversy.
The amount of Liverpool-based writers that referred to the decision or even the debate as ‘ridiculous’ was peculiar and was still happening as late as Tuesday morning. Some questioned the ‘treatment’ Southgate had afforded Alexander-Arnold, as if a manager not picking a brilliant but perhaps tactically unsuitable player was a rarity instead of a regular occurrence. Others questioned Southgate’s judgement, acumen and intelligence. The line of constructive criticism and balanced, reasoned and rational argument was often a speck in the distance.
Southgate has once more handled the situation impeccably despite having possibly the hardest task of any manager heading to the European Championships. Other countries – albeit few – have greater depths of ability to choose from but England were uniquely impacted by three of their clubs reaching major European finals. When the biggest omission from the 33-man preliminary selection is Eric Dier or Danny Ings, with Jesse Lingard the most notable of the seven to drop out thereafter, then it is worth wondering what all the fuss was ever about.
2) The thing about Alexander-Arnold being picked is that he probably still won’t play. He surely won’t start. This is not Southgate trying to appease the masses and hoping that it quietens the noise but rather he has shuffled the deck a little and shown a risk-taking side to his decision-making that few thought him capable of.
England were already lightest in midfield of any position but culling Lingard and James Ward-Prowse left them with five realistic starters there: Jude Bellingham, Jordan Henderson, Mason Mount, Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice. Two of those (Henderson and Phillips) are carrying injury concerns, one (Mount) has played 64 games already this season and the other two have limited tournament experience at club or international level. Alexander-Arnold is an intriguing option that bridges the gap by having at least been at the 2018 World Cup, with his competition pedigree at Liverpool quite obvious.
Yet it still seems unlikely he will play much more than the 79 minutes he was given in Russia three years ago. There are at least two right-backs ahead of him and as many as four or five midfielders who would not be experimenting in the role on a global stage. He is elite cover. There will be enough residual anger from the past few months to carry over in two weeks’ time when he watches Croatia win 2-1 from the bench.
3) Credit to Alexander-Arnold, though, because his response has been absolutely exemplary. He was Liverpool’s best player in the final stretch of the season, scoring one stoppage-time winner, assisting four goals and not missing a single minute as the Reds remained unbeaten and conceded just six times in nine Premier League matches after the March international break. Aside from that aberration at the Bernabeu he has been faultless.
“I play for two teams, and essentially, only two people really make decisions on me: Jurgen Klopp and Gareth Southgate,” he told The Independent last month. “So, within football, these are the only two opinions that massively matter as it impacts whether I am selected or not. If a million people think I shouldn’t play, but Jurgen thinks I should, which holds more power? If a million people think I should be selected for England, but Gareth doesn’t, I won’t make the England squad. It’s a case of really boiling it down to who holds sway in letting me play or not and the performances I put in to influence their decisions.”
He was remarkably mature from the start – unlike many others – and this is his just reward. And it is precisely the sort of reaction Southgate hoped to engender. That is a credit to both player and manager.
4) It was not difficult to read between the lines, examine the veracity of the many hundred leaks and piece together the final remnants of the England squad: four goalkeepers had to become three so Aaron Ramsdale would fall; uncapped Bens, Godfrey and White, were never likely to make it; the Greenwood, Ward-Prowse and Lingard updates were broken earlier in the day. That left a straight shootout between Bukayo Saka and Ollie Watkins as soon as it became apparent that Alexander-Arnold had been chosen.
It is another call that deserves praise for those involved. Southgate has integrated the Arsenal player into the national-team setup so seamlessly that a player with four caps is heading to a major tournament with minimal fuss, while Saka has fully warranted that faith. Again, he might not play but it would have seemed unjust to spend an entire season emerging as leadership material for his club, only to be ignored by his country.
5) Saka is a fine symbol for this England squad: a versatile and prodigiously talented young player who has already assumed a key role at club level. Alexander-Arnold, Reece James, Luke Shaw, Mason Mount, Marcus Rashford, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish are all under 26 and have featured in more than one position previously. Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and Henderson are the only ones 30 or over. Eight players aged 22 or under is the most England have ever taken to a major tournament. As is four right-backs but that is neither here nor there. It really is one of the most exciting competition squads they have ever named.
6) The main gambles are in centre-half and central midfield. Those positions look fairly well-stocked if Harry Maguire and Henderson return from injury but if not then Southgate has left himself hostage to fortune.
Without Maguire there is more than a hint of susceptibility between Conor Coady, Tyrone Mings and John Stones, with James, Walker and even Shaw providing options in a back three. In terms of midfield a spot really does seem to have opened up for Bellingham, while Mount, Rice and Phillips comprise a fine engine between them.
It would be nice if England were beyond picking players whose fitness was in such doubt so close to a tournament but Southgate will also be taking social dynamics into account and a 26-man squad has given him enough leeway to name Maguire and Henderson in the hope both could recover but also the knowledge either will be useful off the pitch if not.
READ MORE: Euro 2020 Group B team-by-team preview
7) Ezri Konsa and Fikayo Tomori would probably be in that squad in an ideal world but the truth is they were never in contention because they were never in contention. The former was on the Aston Villa bench waiting to make his debut and the latter was unfortunate enough to be managed by Frank Lampard at the time that Mings made his England debut in October 2019. Coady got the call after years of consistency with Wolves. From there, both impressed enough to embed themselves into the setup, although it should be noted that Mings offers a left-sided option and Coady slots into a back three.
In terms of talent and even potential ceilings, Konsa and Tomori would be there ordinarily. But as ever with international football, the difficult part is getting your foot in the door. After that it is quite easy to find yourself locked in for a few years. After this tournament cycle their opportunities should come.
8) The Konsa situation is strange because he is a better centre-half than club teammate Mings. As for Tomori, the argument made by some that Southgate has overlooked him because he is playing abroad is preposterous. Bellingham and Jadon Sancho were by no means guaranteed selections and indeed many left them out when making their own choices, but they are proof that out of sight does not mean out of mind under this manager. Add in Trippier and this is the most players based outside of England named in a tournament squad since the 1990 World Cup.
Bellingham is an intriguing call. It was only in November that some were championing Ross Barkley or James Maddison over him yet the 17-year-old has established himself at a Champions League club and deserves to be trusted by his country as a result.
Sancho might be the most exciting player in the squad on current form, scoring 12 goals and assisting 12 more in 20 matches this calendar year. Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford will flank Harry Kane based on historical line-ups; Jack Grealish and Phil Foden have been put forward as definite starters by many over the past few months. Sancho has featured sporadically for England over the last 12 months but could well solve the equation.
9) One position England could probably have afforded to drop a player struggling with injury was in attack, but not taking Rashford would have been an incredibly brave and perhaps quite foolish thing to do. Instead Southgate has opted for a blend of pace, skill, power and flexibility with a forward line that compares favourably against any other country on the continent. He is a glorious man but Danny Welbeck was in England’s last major tournament squad and so much talent has developed in that area since that he would struggle to even make their tenth XI.
10) Also in that 2018 World Cup squad: Gary Cahill, Ashley Young, Phil Jones, Danny Rose and Fabian Delph. Southgate picked 26 players but only ten were in the 23 that went to Russia. That is a breathtaking level of subtle transition and churn in such a short space of time at no real detriment to results and an overall improvement in performances.
11) It is worth reexamining how Southgate used that squad three years ago. Four players (Welbeck, Cahill, Alexander-Arnold, Jones) made their only tournament appearances in either or both of the third group-stage game or third-place play-off, both of which were relative dead-rubbers. Five more (Rashford, Delph, Rose, Dier and Jamie Vardy) made their only starts in those matches. Ruben Loftus-Cheek played 100 minutes against Tunisia and Panama before spending the rest of the month featuring exclusively in those meaningless fixtures against Belgium. Take non-playing goalkeepers Nick Pope and Jack Butland into account, too, and more than half of the squad that went to Russia barely actually played in any matches of note. Although the circumstances of this season have been uniquely different, for all the furore surrounding this selection it is likely to be a similar story.
12) There is a pleasing spread of clubs represented, with Manchester City and Manchester United both boasting the most players with four each. Chelsea follow with three. Borussia Dortmund, Everton and Aston Villa all have as many as Liverpool; West Brom and Leeds match Arsenal and Tottenham on one.
Contrary to the opinions of many, Southgate clearly doesn’t favour any particular team over another. But the most striking thing there is that Tottenham have gone from the most England call-ups of any team at both Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup (five) to just one. And as sensational as that one is, you can see why Kane has had about enough in north London.
13) Shame Phil Neville missed out.
14) Far more clever people than I have crunched the numbers to show that England have named the youngest squad for the Euros of any team yet. Little over a decade ago Fabio Capello picked the oldest World Cup squad in the nation’s history. The former is quite a bit nicer than the latter to look forward to not only this month and next but in the years to come.
15) If anyone out there has stocks in the word ‘bizarre’ they will have made a killing recently with the Alexander-Arnold fume. That seemed to become the accepted term by which most would describe Southgate’s reported decision to overlook him. Once he was selected it was seamlessly parlayed into discussions over the fact Lingard will start against Austria on Wednesday.
‘Why is he playing when he hasn’t been picked for the Euros?’ many asked. Too many. Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United players have not reported for duty yet, accounting for 11 members of a 26-man England squad that is still carrying a few injuries elsewhere. Why wouldn’t Lingard feature?
16) “I spoke to Trent about three weeks ago. So where the stories over the last couple of weeks that have ended up with lots of strange headlines and stories…I’ve no idea where they’ve come from. I felt there were stories that ran that were so far off the truth. Look, I would never normally speak to a player because I read a lot of stories about myself that are not true, but I have to accept that’s the job I’m in and people speculate and write as if it’s exclusive or anything else.
“When it’s a player they might be reading it and thinking it’s true; maybe the manager is speaking to the press behind their back, but that’s obviously not the case. Even last night we were still dealing with that, puzzled because he’s there taking set plays for the game tomorrow and he’s reading that he’s not going to the European Championship. I really don’t understand it. For my players I want to protect them and so again we’re having to say to Trent last night: ‘Look, I don’t know where all this is coming from but it’s nonsense’. Because people then say I have an agenda and I don’t rate the kid, which is nonsense.”
He is excellent. Better, indeed, than many people’s guesses sources. See you again for the same nonsense cycle in winter 2022.