England have ditched their recipe for success with Euro 2024 Gareth Southgate’s biggest gamble of all

The Three Lions have steadily improved over the last few tournamants - but in Germany, they’re taking a different path

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Thursday 13 June 2024 16:21 BST
Comments
England train without defender Stones ahead of Euro 2024 opener

Support truly
independent journalism

Our mission is to deliver unbiased, fact-based reporting that holds power to account and exposes the truth.

Whether $5 or $50, every contribution counts.

Support us to deliver journalism without an agenda.

Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

In the final few sessions before Euro 2024, Gareth Southgate has been keen to ensure England’s raft of new attackers are properly up to speed with some of the team’s rehearsed moves. He can see the full picture, but the lines are still a little blurred. This team doesn't yet have the connections visible in Euro 2020 qualifying, say, but it’s promising. How couldn’t it be promising with Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane? Southgate is unusually excited.

Such “automatisms” - where attackers instinctively execute moves from repeated rehearsal - are one of those parts of preparation that say a lot about the whole. England have been coming close to the line in a similar way.

Euro 2024 had long been looked upon as one of the tournaments when the entire St George’s Park project should finally deliver a trophy.

This may well be Southgate’s last campaign, further fostering a sense of culmination. Even the last tournament before this seemed to outline the final step that is required, as England lost to France in the 2022 World Cup quarter-final by the narrowest margins. Since Kylian Mbappe’s side have been heralded as the best in Europe, the presumption is that you win against them and you win the tournament.

Except now, so close to the line, it’s all a little blurred.

Gareth Southgate has a wealth of attacking options at his disposal in Germany
Gareth Southgate has a wealth of attacking options at his disposal in Germany (Getty Images/The Independent)

It’s no longer quite about France, as Euro 2024 looks like a newly open field. Portugal and Germany are as dangerous. Half of the England squad that played in 2022 aren’t even here, with 12 call-ups preparing for their first tournament. So, Southgate’s side are at once a team that have been building to this point for years and also one that is very new. Declan Rice was shocked when he suddenly realised he is the oldest midfielder in the team.

That isn’t the only contradiction to a squad that sees itself as potential champions. After years of steady build-up and carefully considered selections, Southgate has now gone so bold. After years of getting criticised for steady build-up and carefully considered selections, Southgate is now being criticised for going so bold. Only four players - Kane, John Stones, Kyle Walker and Jordan Pickford - have been in every Southgate squad.

Similarly, although it is the record of England’s established stars that has ensured the team is feared around the world, one reason that English football culture is so respected is because there is apparently an endless production line of talent.

Southgate has just lent into that, in perhaps the greatest trust of the St George’s Park project we’ve yet seen. There are so many exhilarating young attackers. There is still a fair question over whether it’s too bold.

That is all the more pronounced since Southgate has chosen to make mass changes to his attack at the same time that mass changes of defence have been imposed upon him. The latest might be Stones, given that he has faced fitness issues and illness in the build-up to the first game against Serbia.

There is a chance that England open the Euros with three of the preferred back four missing and all of their backline right-footed. That will be behind an attack that hasn’t really played together, while looking for a new balance in midfield. The team suddenly looks unbalanced in a few ways.

Ebe Eze and Anthony Gordon have pushed their way into the squad late on
Ebe Eze and Anthony Gordon have pushed their way into the squad late on (The FA via Getty Images)

It is very different to the last two tournaments, when Southgate seemingly only had single issues to settle and pretty much knew his best XI going in. They seemed so light in comparison to this, which has been beset by injuries. And yet it is the decisive moments from those tournaments that weigh over this. That is especially the case for the European Championship.

Of Southgate’s three tournaments so far, Euro 2020 was the biggest missed opportunity. It was the only one you could say England really should have won. They were mere kicks away, and in what was essentially a home tournament, against an Italy team that have done nothing either side. It may haunt Southgate even more if he doesn’t win Euro 2024. That was the chance. This was supposed to be the chance to rectify it.

That is also where this squad might be exciting, in a slightly under-appreciated way. One of a few reasons why England ultimately lost the Euro 2020 final was because of that conservatism that Southgate has never fully shed. They had Italy by the throat and then stepped back, never gaining a hold again.

With this squad, by contrast, it is like it can’t but seize the initiative.

Phil Foden will be one of England’s main attacking options
Phil Foden will be one of England’s main attacking options (AFP via Getty Images)

That’s what players like Bellingham, Cole Palmer and Eberechi Eze are geared towards. Why lean on defence when most of your strength is in attack? Is it possible that, if this is Southgate’s last tournament, he is just going with it; that he is shedding all those remaining inhibitions; becoming as ruthless as he feels required?

His mood at the squad announcement was striking. Although Southgate forced himself to be respectful to stalwarts he’d left out like Jack Grealish, he was gleefully enthusiastic when talking about the attacking potential of the team. It was similar after the supposed reality check of the defeat to Iceland. A relaxed Southgate simply put it down to players keeping themselves fit for the start of the tournament.

A confident mindset is only one aspect, though. Reality is something else, and there is now the key question over whether this defence is actually good enough to win a tournament. By the same token, is a manager previously as steady as Southgate really going to deviate from previous form that starkly? That’s also in a tactical context when international football has deviated from the club game, and no one wins tournaments without a solid defence base.

England’s staff have spent months now looking for methods to quickly build connections to a new backline. Southgate has meanwhile been going back and forth on what midfield to play. There have been suggestions Adam Wharton could go from a surprise call-up to a certain starter.

This also may be where Bellingham is even more important than he already is. The plan at Real Madrid is that he will eventually succeed Luka Modric in midfield, so why not put him back there for England now? He obviously has the ability. He also has the force of personality.

Bellingham is expected to play behind Kane in attack
Bellingham is expected to play behind Kane in attack (AP)

The thinking around the England camp has long been that his assertiveness was the final ingredient missing, that he is the ultimate product of the St George’s Park era by marrying elite coaching with natural talent and - yes - a winner’s mentality. Bellingham’s club success so far is already in such contrast to the other totem of the team, in Kane. It's just that Bellingham's assertiveness would be the last ingredient for a team that doesn't really exist any more. This is something new. Kane is one of the remaining stars. He also has a persuasive narrative of his own in trying to finally win his first ever trophy in a country he has made home.

This is one element that shouldn’t be overlooked in all of the debate about England’s weaknesses. They have two of the best players in the tournament, one the top scorer in the host nation’s league, the other one maybe the most valuable player at Euro 2024.

Other countries would love such talent. It can take you very far, especially with a solid base.

Neither Southgate nor the players just want to go far, though. They want to go all the way, to cross that line. The picture right now is a bit blurred. More rehearsals are required, for what might be a last act.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in