Dreaming of a Bellingham-Foden double-eight axis and an unleashed Eze delivering Euros glory

Dave Tickner
Jude Bellingham, Gareth Southgate and Eberechi Eze with the England badge
Jude Bellingham and Eberechi Eze hold the key to Euros glory

We’ve been slightly thrown by England’s final 26-man squad and may have gone mad. But hear us out: Bellingham and Foden as a pair of eights. Yes please.

 

So now we know the England 26 attention turns to the even thornier issue of the 11.

We’re not confident here based on the complete b*llocks we made of guessing the seven to be cut, which after a promising start when James Maddison, Jarell Quansah and Curtis Jones were the first three to go soon went wildly and irretrievably downhill.

The curveball was that we picked our seven assuming a clean bill of health and Harry Maguire scuppered that. We’re not making excuses (we are) but we do wonder what knock-on effect that might have had elsewhere.

Would the estimable, experienced but at international level rather limited Lewis Dunk have been favoured over the vast potential of Jarrad Branthwaite had Maguire been around? We’re not so sure.

But we must concede we simply didn’t see Branthwaite’s absence coming at all. It’s the one big call Southgate’s made in his seven, really. The one that could have major ramifications. Further forward he’s left out some very good players and picked some other very good players. There wasn’t really a wrong answer there among England’s assorted back-up attacking options, no choice that would have left England with a dud or without someone it later transpired was vital.

That’s not quite the case with that patched-up walking-wounded defence. For one thing, the absence of Branthwaite means Luke Shaw, definitely ruled out of the first group game and unlikely to start the second, is the only left-footed defender in the squad. That’s a move that might generously be described as a ‘calculated gamble’ and perhaps more accurately simply as a ‘gamble’.

We also didn’t foresee any scenario, even with 26 names available to him, where Southgate took all three of his strikers. It always looked to us like Ivan Toney or Ollie Watkins and not both. There will always be players who don’t get on the pitch in a 26-man squad and one of those two is now a good bet for that particular prize. We’re fully braced for Toney’s first and only action of the tournament to be as a 119th-minute substitute at 1-1 in the quarter-final against Croatia for his penalty expertise. He might genuinely be in the squad solely and specifically for that purpose given Watkins’ superior overall all-round form this season but Toney’s vastly superior record from the spot. Toney might be going to Germany as a one-man special team.

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But again, whatever happened, England’s attacking options are and were always going to be absurdly stacked. Whoever they left out, there was never going to be a scenario when one looked at the bench and bemoaned the lack of options available to get them back into a game. Which is just as well, given the defence.

We’d have taken Jack Grealish, but really he can have few complaints. His form across the season has been poor and 30 good minutes against a half-interested Bosnia probably isn’t enough to change that. We still have a nagging suspicion he offers more in a knockout-game salvage operation than Jarrod Bowen, but must also concede that in favouring both Eberechi Eze and Bowen, Southgate has picked on current form – something he’s often criticised for supposedly failing to do.

Bowen’s inclusion means England have better balance to their attacking back-up options, offering as he does a genuine alternative to Bukayo Saka on the right. Once Eze had made his case pretty much watertight by rubber-stamping his late-season Palace form with that eye-catching hour against Bosnia, Grealish was probably already done for. With Anthony Gordon’s pace and directness offering a necessary point of difference, three left-sided back-ups for Phil Foden probably was one too many.

So having made really quite a large mess – if, we think, a generally understandable one – of predicting the final 26 we go again with the XI for the opening game against Serbia nine days from now.

Jordan Pickford will be in goal and Harry Kane will be up front. There’s the easy bits at the top and tail of the team.

The extremely right-footed back four is presumably going to be Kyle Walker, John Stones, Marc Guehi and Kieran Trippier. We’d be a bit happier if they’d played some football together or even much football at all individually recently, but one can’t have everything at a major tournament. It’s not great. It was never going to be great.

Now comes the midfield, and here is where there are two divergent approaches. There’s what Gareth Southgate will do and what we’d quite like the England manager to actually do. We call this our “What Would Pep Do” section.

It’s easy and common to dismiss Pep Guardiola’s genius with the suggestion he’s achieved his success on easy mode. He’s had either Lionel Messi or a significant baked-in advantage for his entire managerial career. But others have had similarly helpful conditions and made less of them than Pep. He’s also frequently a finder of surprisingly interesting solutions.

In the season just gone, for instance, he looked at Josko Gvardiol and saw a left-back where nobody else – not least Gvardiol himself – did. For the first couple of months it looked a wild piece of misjudgement. By the end of the season Gvardiol looked like he’d never played anywhere else.

And sure, it’s also very funny that this particular example of Guardiola being more than merely a chequebook manager involves him finding an unexpected and ultimately excellent solution to his left-back problem by repurposing the £80m centre-back he didn’t really have much other use for.

One thing Guardiola would definitely have done with this squad, for instance, is taken Branthwaite and played him at left-back. Probably would have made it work as well, at least by the last 16.

But it’s the midfield we’re interested in, because it’s the only place where some apparent uncertainty about what Southgate will do persists. But really, that uncertainty is only because it’s still quite hard to accept that he really is going to entrust the centre of the pitch to Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Not because Trent can’t do it necessarily, but because it just doesn’t seem a very Southgate way to go about it. Even if it does allow him to get another right-back on the pitch, something of which he is unduly fond.

Yet Alexander-Arnold has started for England, in midfield, in five of the last seven games for which he’s been available. It’s easy to think Southgate will just start Conor Gallagher as the safest option and maybe he still will, but Alexander-Arnold at eight with Declan Rice as a very busy six does now appear the likeliest route England will take based on the available evidence.

In front of that it then becomes simple enough. Bellingham at 10, Saka on the right, Foden with a nominal starting position on the left but some freedom to roam.

Yet here’s where we still wonder if there isn’t another way. WWPD? It’s futile really, because Southgate won’t, but at least in the group games against Serbia and Slovenia we’d love to see what happens if England lean into their strengths rather than worry about their weaknesses. In the immortal words of Fat Les: We’re gonna score one more than you.

The defence is weak. We know that. But the attack is absolutely stacked. So let’s really stack it. Play Foden and Bellingham as a pair of marauding eights and let Rice worry about literally everything else happening behind them. Play Eze from the start to twist some blood, or Gordon to put defenders on their heels. F*** teams up instead of boring them to death.

There is a certain logic to it. Especially in the early games when Shaw is unavailable. Foden starting from the left is fine, but you don’t really want him to stay out there as a touchline hugger. It’s not his game and it’s not the way to get the best out of him. But if he’s playing in front of a right-footed left-back he may feel he has little choice but to be more rigid in his positioning.

Eze can certainly drift inside – and England’s attack should always be fluid given its component parts and the way they all like to play – but he’s far more comfortable with paint under his boots than Foden is. He would provide far more natural width and allow Foden to operate in areas where he too is more comfortable and take away from Kieran Trippier the need to try and create attacking width himself on his weaker side. Gordon is a different player again, but also a more natural wide man than Foden.

Against opponents where England are unlikely to be doing too much defending and also can’t really be relied upon to do it that well anyway, is there really that much lost by going all the way balls out?

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Sure, it’s not a strategy England can probably deploy with great confidence against France or Germany or Portugal or Spain, but with the options now available we’re not sure there is one of those anyway. Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.

For all the well-placed concern around England’s defence, there’s a good chance the primary source of post-elimination rueing is that this tournament has just come slightly too early for Kobbie Mainoo or Adam Wharton to be slotted in to simply solve everything.

But if Southgate started with Alexander-Arnold then he may well still have to change things in the latter stages in the (quite probably) forlorn pursuit of greater stability and solidity. For all his obvious and absurd footballing qualities, TAA certainly isn’t someone you’d necessarily expect to be taming the best midfield the continent has to offer

It’s all moot anyway, of course. We know the Foden-Bellingham double-eight won’t happen. It’s probably fair enough that it won’t happen. But at a tournament where England are going to find themselves wedging some quite mediocre round pegs into some important square holes, we’d love for them to at least have a look at an alternative that seems to us like it might potentially do more to get the best out of England’s conspicuous and considerable strengths rather than worrying too much about trying in vain to cover the glaring weaknesses.

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