England are barely a week away from entering a major tournament and some sections of the media are writing about the ‘omens’ being bad. This came in the wake of a 1-0 win over Austria in which three or four of England’s first-choice side played. As a reaction to that ridiculous media reaction, we are looking at reasons to be quite cheerful actually…
All of the brilliant bloody players on their way
The refrain for years was that England did not have enough outstanding footballers used to playing on the biggest stages, and now that we have half our squad in European finals, hands are being thrown in the air in despair that Gareth Southgate is being robbed of time with some of his best and brightest players. F*** that, frankly. Nine of England’s players started in the Europa League or Champions League finals. That is amazing. That is unprecedented. That is a blessing.
The team that played against Austria – and won 1-0 – was missing Luke Shaw, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Ben Chilwell, Reece James, Mason Mount, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden because three of them were off winning Champions League medals, four of them were winning runners-up medals and two of them were being admittedly terrible in the Europa League final.
There would be laughter the length and breadth of Europe at the typically English reaction to what really should be a reason to rejoice.
The alternative attacking options
If you follow the betting, you should expect Foden, Mount, Sterling and Harry Kane to start against Croatia as the front four. If you watched England beat Austria, you might be wondering where Jack Grealish fits into that picture.
The Aston Villa man was brilliant in November for England but missing the March games left him in so much peril that we wondered whether Jesse Lingard would usurp him. Two months later he was being handed the No. 7 shirt. Phew. His start against Austria might have largely been by default – Southgate actually had only ten outfield members of his 26-man squad available – but he made a compelling case to be in the conversation to start the opening group game.
And Bukayo Saka did himself no harm with a goal. Finishing is his most obvious weakness (his five Premier League goals came from an xG of over seven) and that strike should make him feel less like a utility pick. Asked whether him and Jude Bellingham had made a point to Southgate, he said: “That’s what we try to do with every opportunity we get to show the manager that we can play. I hope me and Jude did that tonight.”
He is 17 and he started in central midfield in the German cup final. He is 17 and started in central midfield in a Champions League quarter-final. He is 17 and has started in central midfield 19 times this season for the third-best team in the country. If this were happening in England, Bellingham’s mug would be on every billboard and back page. But such is the insularity of this nation of ours, your dad had probably never seen his face or even heard his name until he played on Wednesday night.
I wrote in March that this tournament might come too soon for him, but I was wrong. So, so wrong. A squad that looks incredibly weak in central midfield – even with the presumably recovered Jordan Henderson – can afford no passengers and Bellingham is absolutely not a passenger. If Kalvin Phillips is an option to start against Croatia then Bellingham absolutely must be too. The only question mark against his name is his age and age ain’t nothing but a number (RIP Aaliyah).
That’s not England’s defence
Tyrone Mings and Conor Coady is not a combination that has ever played together before and it is not a combination that will ever play together again. Yes, they were shonky but they were always going to be shonky. Southgate could have picked any other centre-halves who are not John Stones and Harry Maguire and they would still have been shonky.
We know that Stones will return after his Manchester City exertions and the clever money is on a switch to a back three if Maguire cannot return alongside him. There’s a reason why Southgate chose so many right-backs. Trippier-Walker-Stones-Mings-Shaw looks absolutely fine as long as Declan Rice is trusted as the lone deep midfielder. What we don’t want to see is a back five with Rice and Phillips practically making a back seven. Remember, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a back five; England reached a semi-final with that shape and we would absolutely take that again.
That said…England won
And England have a habit of winning. That’s nine wins from 12 games this season in which only five goals have been conceded. England have now won five in a row and only two nations can match that record – Italy and Sweden. Even tournament favourites France drew with Ukraine in March.