16 Conclusions on England’s Euro 2024 squad: Rashford, Henderson, alarming defensive gaps, absurd attacking strength

Dave Tickner
We have 16 Conclusions on England's Euro 2024 squad
We have 16 Conclusions on England's Euro 2024 squad

Thirty three players, Gareth? Thirty three? That’s insane. We knew Gareth Southgate was going to name more than 26 today but we were not braced for quite how many more he was going to include. There are seven centre-backs and that’s not including Joe Gomez. It is, if you’ll forgive the technical term, a f*ckton of footballers.

Yet while the overall number means some inevitable eye-catching inclusions, Gareth has still managed to surprise with a couple of enormously significant omissions.

It’s a squad that makes us very giddy at one end of the pitch and very nervous at the other, and you can probably guess which is which.


1) Naming a whopping 33 players even after UEFA have caved and let you have 26 in your squad instead of the standard pre-Covid tight 23 we were all led to expect for months and months – sending the Famous England Ladder down all manner of blind alleys, for one thing – appears on the face of it a classic slice of Southgate; naming a bloated, oversized squad that reeks of bets hedged and difficult decisions kicked down the road.

And yet while we can all look at a squad this close to a tournament that contains four goalkeepers and seven centre-backs, aside from the sheer number of players named this afternoon it’s hard to truly apply the standard ‘too nice’ criticism of Southgate.

For a squad of this enormous size it is nevertheless surprisingly brutal. Absolutely none of Jordan Henderson, Reece James, Ben Chilwell and Marcus Rashford can have a single complaint about their absence from this squad and this tournament, but we’d have been stunned to see Southgate omit even one or two of those hardy favourites from such a gigantic group, never mind all four.

Rashford sits sixth on the list of players with most England caps under Southgate and Henderson eighth. If the absences of James and Chilwell can be attributed mainly to chronic injury problems, Rashford and Henderson represent a more definitive choice by the manager. It’s as surprising as it is welcome.


2) Before we go any further, we have to at least acknowledge England’s official description for this squad. It is a ‘pre-Euro 2024 training squad’ for the games against Bosnia and Iceland. They are at pains not to call it a provisional squad or similar and we should probably take note of that.

But it’s such a very large squad covering so very many bases that Southgate must know the message he sends by omitting players from it. There can’t possibly be any way back for those not named here. There certainly shouldn’t be.


3) Henderson’s absence is curious, if only for the timing. It’s a decision that brings to mind the response of a journalist when Krusty the Klown announced his retirement from comedy. ‘But Krusty, why now? Why not 20 years ago?’

Southgate was handed the perfect opportunity to move on from Henderson when the midfielder left Liverpool for lucrative if questionable semi-retirement playing walking football in the desert. The footballing reasons were plentiful even if you could see past (or simply didn’t want to see) the moral objections.

To keep him around for the rest of the build-up to this tournament and jettison him now after he moved back to Europe and returned to playing something approaching meaningful top-level football with Ajax seems like a wasted opportunity to have been looking elsewhere for the last 10 months. Also very funny, though, so there’s that.

But there can be little doubt this is the right call for a player who has been a valuable and reliable component of some very good England sides but is no longer worth his place. Southgate may have got the timing wrong, but better to acknowledge and correct a mistake than double down out of stubbornly misguided loyalty.

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4) While Henderson’s absence is only a surprise because we just really didn’t think Southgate had it him, Rashford is a bigger call purely because this is not a player approaching the twilight of his career. Here is a player with vast international experience and who at 26 should be approaching his peak.

Southgate’s reluctance to move on from Henderson was down to flawed thinking; his reluctance to move past Rashford far more understandable. It simply should not have come to this.

Rashford’s ability and versatility should make him a shoo-in, a player who can change a match from the bench even if he isn’t in contention for a starting spot among England’s ridiculous wealth of attacking talent. And you can be certain Southgate would have desperately wanted to see something, anything to justify keeping a player in whom he has placed so much trust and more often than not seen that trust rewarded.

But it’s just not there. Southgate was very straightforward about just how straightforward his thinking was here.

‘With Marcus, I just feel other players in that area have had better seasons. It’s as simple as that.’

Impossible to argue, really. Rashford hasn’t scored a single goal since the last international break. He has been handed a reset at international level and it very much looks like he might need the same at club level too. It would be overly dramatic to say his career is at a crossroads, but the next 12 months do look mighty significant for Rashford’s future at the very highest level for club and country. Might it be time for a change of scene?


5) While the high-profile absences from a very large squad are going to attract inevitable attention, this is a squad that is currently defined by its inclusions. Almost by default, because that is an absolutely mental number of inclusions.

Naming 33 players this late in the day feels quite Southgate, but five of them being uncapped absolutely does not. While we don’t think we’re giving away too many state secrets in saying James Trafford probably doesn’t make the final 26, the other six players to be cut are far harder to pin down.


6) Luke Shaw is an obvious talking point. He’s missed the vast majority of this season and yet is named as the only natural, specialist left-back among a group of 11 defenders in this training squad. With no Chilwell, Southgate is placing an awful lot of stock in Shaw’s ability to be fit – and match-fit – for this tournament after such a stop-start season. Especially as it’s been mainly stop.

You’d imagine Shaw’s status as the only left-back in the group must also be good news for Joe Gomez and Kieran Trippier because it seems almost impossible to imagine a scenario where Shaw is fit to play seven games in a month after making just 15 appearances – none of them since February – all season. Someone is going to have to fill in and we now know it is not going to be a specialist.


7) It is a squad very light on full-backs altogether, with Kyle Walker and Trippier the only specialist right-backs given the fact Trent Alexander-Arnold is quite pointedly included among the midfielders.

England’s defence really is a problem, and at least some of the six outfield cuts still to be made must surely come from a really very large collection of centre-backs. We criticise Southgate for his indecision at times, but we do have some sympathy here.

Even if we put Gomez in a separate ‘utility’ category, there are still seven centre-backs here and two of them have zero caps. Clearly, they’re not all going to make it but it does suggest Southgate has serious doubts about his choices here.

We’d imagine, because we’ve seen nothing to suggest the contrary, that his first choice back four remains Walker, Maguire, Stones, Shaw and it is therefore very far from ideal that only one of those players has played any meaningful quantity of football since the last get-together. There’s being fresh and there’s being undercooked. England’s defence currently veers hard towards the latter.


8) If pushed to guess Southgate’s plan here, the evidence would suggest that Guehi and Konsa are next cabs off the rank and both probably make the plane alongside one of the rookies in Jarrad Branthwaite and Jarell Quansah, with Lewis Dunk missing out after Brighton’s difficult season and his own struggles in the last international break.

There will be plenty of focus on the attacking players fortunate to retain their place in this group, but Dunk can probably consider himself pretty lucky too. An awful lot of defenders have been named for him to remain in there but his luck must surely run out in the final 26. We’re going, with almost zero confidence: Stones, Maguire, Guehi, Konsa and Branthwaite making the final squad alongside the three full-backs and Gomez.


9) It really isn’t a set of names to fill you with enormous confidence, is it? It’s possible to win a major tournament entirely from the front foot but it’s not the normal route and it’s not a particularly Southgate one. Even in the last Euros, England’s run to the final was propelled more by a defence that didn’t concede a goal until the semi-final than its attacking output.

But if England are going to make history in Germany they may have no choice but to adopt a different approach and play to their strengths. Because once you start looking at the names further forward you can’t help but feel really rather giddy. The depth of attacking talent England now possess is really quite silly.


10) For all the uncertainty that exists around England currently, we’d still be pretty confident about 10 of the names in Southgate’s preferred first XI, all things being equal. And those names are Pickford, Walker, Maguire, Stones, Shaw, Rice, Bellingham, Foden, Saka and Kane.

For multiple reasons, then, the names of the midfielders in this squad are fascinating. One, because compared to other areas of the pitch there are relatively few of them – just six. Two, because one of the five others named with Rice will start alongside him when the tournament begins despite having relatively little experience. And three, a lot of these names are exciting or leftfield or both.

Alexander-Arnold is still the real sh*t-or-bust, emphasise-our-strengths-and-let-weaknesses-take-care-of-themselves option but even he isn’t the most interesting one. The uncapped Curtis Jones has the requisite big-game experience and seems the kind of unflappable sort Southgate might warm to in tournament conditions. Kobbie Mainoo was brilliant on debut and despite his struggles in United’s flailing shambles of a midfield might well retain the strongest claim for a starting spot.


11) But more exciting than any of them is a thoroughly deserved call-up for Adam Wharton. That’s a proper tournament bolter and he’s the biggest (although very much not the only) winner from the radical difference Oliver Glasner is already making at Crystal Palace.

He’s been brilliant during Palace’s spectacular run-in and while it’s always hard to entirely put your finger on why this is the case with some players just looks right for international football. There’s an underlying composure to his perpetual motion that speaks of a winning combination.

He still looked a long way from selection even at the last international break, but it’s hard to think how anyone could have finished this season with a more perfectly timed run of form in a more significant position than Wharton has produced.


12) Having considered all these variously interesting and exciting possibilities, we are nevertheless convinced that starting alongside Rice against Serbia on June 16 will be Conor Gallagher. Which is fine, we guess. We quite like him and his eager puppy energy. He has at least been playing well recently. But still. He isn’t really quite good enough. It is the least interesting and therefore the most Southgate of all the options and leaves us at best whelmed.


13) There is of course still the bombshell option if you want to get as many definitely good footballers on the pitch as possible. Move Jude Bellingham back alongside Rice. It’s far more tempting than it should be, because No. 10 is not just Bellingham’s best position but he is quite possibly the very best player in that position on earth right now. But he is also a brilliant No. 8, and England very simply have a lot more elite No. 10s than they do eights.

If this squad lays bare nothing else, it is that. While Southgate has had to look to uncapped players just to come up with a workable number of midfield options, the list of attacking players is genuinely absurd.

If Bellingham were to move back into midfield Southgate could move Foden inside, or start Cole Palmer or start James Maddison or even play Harry Kane there behind an Ollie Watkins or Ivan Toney if he were feeling really frisky.

📣 TO THE COMMENTS! Do you agree with the England squad? What would you change? Join the debate here.


14) It won’t happen, though, and it probably is fair enough. Bellingham is just too good in that position to put him anywhere else. Which had us idly wondering when if ever England could ever previously lay claim to having the best attacking player in three top leagues at the same time. Other options are available, but the case for Foden in the Premier League, Kane in the Bundesliga and Bellingham in La Liga is one that could at least be made with a straight face and minimal contortion.

We cannot remember England ever having anything like this array of attacking talent available, and the sheer breadth and depth of it is why Southgate – never a man who wants to publicly criticise his players – feels so comfortable saying “others have been better” when talking about Rashford. It just isn’t a particularly damning criticism, because these players are all absurdly good and have all had demonstrably superior seasons to Rashford.


15) It is still perhaps the hardest call of the lot to predict. Our fag-packet squad make-up calculations suggest Southgate will have to cut at least two of Jack Grealish, Cole Palmer, Eberechi Eze, James Maddison, Anthony Gordon and Jarrod Bowen from his final squad. Whoever misses out will be enormously unlucky. All have obvious qualities. All have obviously different qualities. Palmer has shown he can play as a false nine, which is a big tick against his name in a Rashford-less world but we really wouldn’t want to pin down the names that miss out here. So we’re not going to. You can’t make us.


16) And it’s only two from that group if one of Watkins and Toney also misses out, which is what we’d expect. Southgate’s previous tournament squad selections hint at only one pure back-up for Kane. Rashford’s absence slightly complicates that equation but here, we imagine, is where Palmer’s meteoric rise plays its part. He is Rashford’s replacement as the attacking player who can play up front if need be, leaving only one place for a straight-up No. 9 understudy.

It’s a more interesting selection than raw numbers would suggest. Raw numbers tell you it simply has to be Watkins after his best ever season for Villa, one which brought him 19 goals and a division-high 13 assists. Yet he was outperformed in the last international break by Toney, who has since endured a miserable run of form to end the season and in all likelihood his Brentford career.

So what does Southgate do here? This feels very much like a decision he has not yet made. The only clear decision he has made on this front is that for whatever reason he doesn’t fancy Dominic Solanke much. If there is one spot in the starting XI that we think Southgate may not yet be sure of, it’s in central midfield. If there’s one place in the squad he’s not yet clear on in his mind then it might just be this one. Both will surely get a chance in the upcoming friendlies and it may well be a straight shootout. The very best of luck to you both.

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