Gareth Southgate’s lionhearts: England to unleash wave of young talent during Euro 2020 mission


In the end 33 players became 26 without too much fuss. Turning that 26 into a perfect XI in time for Sunday week will be more of a challenge.

A year ago, Gareth Southgate knew roughly half of his ideal starting XI for the first game of European Championship and so did the rest of us. The England manager knew ‘part of the batting order’, as he once put it.

Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford. In Southgate’s mind, they were all in. That was to be the backbone of the summer of 2021.

England manager Gareth Southgate is likely to be heavily reliant on youth at Euro 2020

England manager Gareth Southgate is likely to be heavily reliant on youth at Euro 2020

With key stars struggling, England could place faith in the likes of Chelsea's Mason Mount

With key stars struggling, England could place faith in the likes of Chelsea's Mason Mount

With key stars struggling, England could place faith in the likes of Chelsea’s Mason Mount

But things can change quickly in football and for Southgate and his England team it has come with a rush.

Maguire and Henderson have just finished the domestic season carrying injuries. It was sobering to hear Southgate intimate on Tuesday that he may not have included either had he been restricted by UEFA rules to a more familiar squad of 23.

Sterling and Rashford, meanwhile, have fitness but little form. Their reputations remain intact thanks to service previously rendered but on the back of recent performances alone, neither man gets anywhere near Southgate’s team for England’s opening game in Group D against Croatia at Wembley in 10 days’ time.

Jack Grealish could have a big part to play for England

Jack Grealish could have a big part to play for England

Phil Foden is another talented prospect who can make an impact

Phil Foden is another talented prospect who can make an impact

The likes of Jack Grealish (left) and Phil Foden (right) could also be important for England

Southgate praised the leadership qualities of 17-year-old midfielder Jude Bellingham

Southgate praised the leadership qualities of 17-year-old midfielder Jude Bellingham

Southgate praised the leadership qualities of 17-year-old midfielder Jude Bellingham

So if England really are going to have a decent run at winning this tournament then it seems they will be taken there, at least in part, by younger, less experienced players.

That is exciting and daunting all at the same time. It is hard not to think positively about an England team that could include fresh young talent such as Mason Mount, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham.

Equally it is not insignificant that Foden, Grealish and Bellingham have just 13 caps between them while cover for Maguire at the heart of the defence largely comprises Tyrone Mings (eight caps) and Conor Coady (four).

On Tuesday Southgate, speaking from Teesside ahead of Wednesday night’s friendly against Austria, was talking up his younger players and it is no wonder. The chances are he will need them.

Raheem Sterling has had some difficult moments this season

Raheem Sterling has had some difficult moments this season

Marcus Rashford has also struggled for form at times

Marcus Rashford has also struggled for form at times

Raheem Sterling (left) and Marcus Rashford (right) have struggled at times this season

‘Teams constantly evolve and form changes,’ said Southgate. ‘We’ve always gone into tournaments in bygone days worrying about maybe one or two key injuries. But we feel we have some depth, which is important. We’re not flapping.

‘We’d love to have everybody available and fit but we’ve got what we’ve got and we’re happy. If we get the other lads back, then that’s a bonus for us. You have to find ways of winning with the hand you’ve got.

‘We do have some depth because we’ve blooded young players early and some of those young players now have 10 caps or more.

‘So there’s an excitement for us working with this group of players. They’re not at their peak, I’ve said that before.

‘But the level of training this week, even with 10 players who have been in European finals not with us, has been really high, so very exciting.

‘I mean someone like Jude. Phew! He is phenomenal. To have a 17-year-old who wants to compete with senior players, who not only has the techniques but the competitiveness and the maturity, is so exciting.

‘He’s going to be an important player for England and we’re not just taking him to this one for the experience.’

Harry Maguire is battling to be fit for the start of Euro 2020

Harry Maguire is battling to be fit for the start of Euro 2020

Jordan Henderson is also looking to prove his fitness

Jordan Henderson is also looking to prove his fitness

Harry Maguire (left) and Jordan Henderson (right) face a battle to be fit for the start of the tournament

In confirming that Maguire and Henderson would struggle to make the tournament’s opening game, Southgate was anything but bullish.

To be without either against Croatia would not be as seismic as days gone by when the nation waited on news of injuries to the likes of David Beckham and Wayne Rooney with the kind of anticipation normally reserved for the birth of a royal baby.

But the pair are nevertheless important. They have 90 caps between them. Both played in the World Cup semi-final in Moscow three summers ago. They will be hard to replace.

In terms of business further up the field, that will all come down to Southgate’s judgment and the level of trust he really feels he can place in players such as Foden, Mount and Grealish.

Mount will certainly play in game one. He was exceptional in Chelsea’s Champions League win in Portugal at the weekend and has been all season. But whether the England manager really has the nerve to remove Sterling and/or Rashford from his line-up at this late stage is harder to predict. What is beyond doubt is that both are short of form.

‘We are here to play nine games and we know we already have some injury doubts in the group,’ said Southgate.

‘We are going to face other difficulties in the next five weeks so we need adaptability, we need good players, we need good professionals, tactically savvy players and we are fortunate that we have old and young players who fit all those categories.

‘I’m looking at Jude this morning, Declan, Mason Mount. They are future captains for whatever teams they play in. In their own right they have got leadership qualities.’

Declan Rice, who has impressed for West Ham, was another to receive praise from Southgate

Declan Rice, who has impressed for West Ham, was another to receive praise from Southgate

Declan Rice, who has impressed for West Ham, was another to receive praise from Southgate

With Mason Greenwood withdrawing from the squad with injury, Southgate was left with few headaches ahead of naming a squad that dropped at 5pm. Leaving out a player of known character and experience such as Jesse Lingard while including another young forward, Bukayo Saka of Arsenal, seemed a little strange. Maybe Saka’s versatility gets him in.

That apart, there was little to quibble or worry about.

Southgate insists publicly that England can win this tournament. There is nothing wrong with positivity but, still, that seems like a stretch. In key areas England are starting to look just a little too green.

Nevertheless, this is an England squad designed to play on the front foot and there is much to like about that.

Whoever Southgate chooses when his players assemble at Wembley a week on Sunday, none of them will be afraid to have the ball. A personal worry is what may happen when England do not have it.

But the other major nations will look at Southgate’s squad with respect. England can expect to be contenders for this title.



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