The time has come for Gareth Southgate to make his mind up and decide on the England team that will carry the nation’s hopes at Euro 2020.
His provisional 33-man squad has now been whittled down to a final 26 and the Wembley opener with Croatia on June 13 is moving into view.
While Southgate will undoubtedly have a fairly good idea of his strongest XI for the tournament, the factors of form and fitness remain a consideration.
The time has come for Gareth Southgate to decide on his England team for Euro 2020
Bukayo Saka (right) scored England’s winning goal in last Wednesday’s friendly with Austria
Marcus Rashford slots home the penalty that decided Sunday’s friendly against Romania
We’ve already seen Trent Alexander-Arnold withdraw because of a thigh injury and normally assured starters Jordan Henderson and Harry Maguire are lacking match fitness.
Luckily, there are various positions where England are blessed with a number of reliable players who could slot into the side and make an impact.
Using statistics for the 2020-21 season supplied by Sofascore, we analyse who should get the nod in various key positions as the debate rages on ahead of the Euros.
How big a miss will Alexander-Arnold be and who should play at right-back now?
It was heart-breaking to see Trent Alexander-Arnold limp out of the friendly with Austria and be ruled out of the Euros with a thigh injury, especially following all the fuss over his selection.
But how big a miss will the Liverpool man be in an England squad not exactly short of right-back options? It depends how you view it.
In terms of attacking qualities, Alexander-Arnold clearly out-performs Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and Reece James.
Trent Alexander-Arnold suffered a thigh injury against Austria and will miss Euro 2020
How the four right-backs originally picked by Southgate compared on 2020-21 stats, supplied by Sofascore. The injury to Alexander-Arnold leaves just Walker, Trippier and James left
He averages almost eight crosses per game, nearly twice as many as James and Trippier, and is responsible for far more key passes.
Inevitably, he has the most assists out of the quartet this season though Atletico Madrid man Trippier may have caught him if not for his betting ban.
But defensively, his figures aren’t as good as the others and this has long been the main criticism of his game. He wins less than half of his duels with opponents, which compares badly with the other three.
The stats suggest that Kieran Trippier should get the nod at right back or right wing-back
Kyle Walker would be the preferred choice on the right of a back three if Southgate plays it
His tackling is better than Walker’s based on last season but not as effective as Trippier and James. Alexander-Arnold is an astute reader of the game when it comes to interceptions, however.
If Southgate sticks to his 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 system, then Alexander-Arnold clearly would have been suited to a wing-back role that requires attacking intent.
But it appears England will line up 4-3-3 so the right-back will have to do plenty of defensive work.
Southgate favoured a 3-4-2-1 formation with wing-backs during last year’s UEFA Nations League campaign (top two pitch maps) but switched to a 4-3-3 set-up for March’s trio of World Cup qualifiers against San Marino, Albania and Poland
With Alexander-Arnold now out, Trippier would be the best candidate for this. His attacking work stands up to scrutiny, he can cross and take free-kicks, while his tackling and interceptions rank highly.
He was a major part of Atletico’s watertight defence as they won the LaLiga title.
Southgate has long favoured Trippier in that position and there’s no reason here why he should doubt his abilities now.
Indeed, if Southgate does go for the three central defenders and wing-backs, you’d still favour Trippier on the right flank with Walker on the right of the three.
None of this casts aspersions on James, who enjoyed a brilliant season with Chelsea that culminated with a Champions League win, but Southgate will likely go with the experience.
An excellent season for Reece James at Chelsea culminated in a Champions League success
Who is England’s most effective wide attacker?
Southgate reverted from the 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-3 system favoured during the autumn Nations League fixtures to a 4-3-3 shape in March’s trio of World Cup qualifiers.
This offers the team greater width in attacking areas as they attempt to take full advantage of the top class players available in that position.
During the qualification campaign for Euro 2020, Southgate shared the creative burden between Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho to good effect.
Jadon Sancho has enjoyed an excellent season for Borussia Dortmund and merits a place
Raheem Sterling (right) wasn’t able to make an impact in the Champions League final
All three bring a similar skill set – speed and acceleration on the counter-attack, skill and trickery to take on and beat defenders, and well-honed shooting ability.
Southgate’s squad also features Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish, who are more than capable of taking on a wide attacking role on one or either flank.
Grealish pressed his case strongly in the 1-0 win over Romania on Sunday.
But there’s only two positions and our analysis of the three principal candidates suggests Rashford and Sancho should oust Sterling from the side.
Sterling, a veteran of 61 England caps, has scored 14 times and created a further 10 goals in another successful season with Manchester City.
The stats for the 2020-21 season, supplied by Sofascore, suggest that Jadon Sancho should be a definite starter in the wide attacking areas ahead of Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling
But, by his own admission, he has been ‘nowhere near’ his best form all season and it was telling that Pep Guardiola left him out of City’s Champions League quarter-final and semi-final before he struggled to make a mark on the final against Chelsea.
Rashford may have had an off-night as Manchester United lost to Villarreal in the Europa League final – and didn’t end the season in particularly strong form – but his 21 goals this season trump Sterling’s return.
The United forward also has the superior big chance conversion rate, suggesting he is more trustworthy to take the handful of opportunities that come a forward’s way in the big tournaments.
He also converted an assured penalty to settle the win over Romania on Sunday.
Marcus Rashford cut a frustrated figure as Manchester United lost in the Europa League final
But Borussia Dortmund star Sancho outshines them both with 16 goals and 18 assists in the campaign just finished – and in fewer appearances.
The stats also show that Sancho, who could be Premier League bound after the Euros, also plays more key passes, creates and takes more chances, and is more successful with his dribbles.
So if Southgate were to pick on form as opposed to experience, it would be Sancho on the right side of the attack and everyone else to fight it out for the other spot.
Can England cope without Henderson in midfield?
Another headache for Southgate ahead of the Croatia opener is Jordan Henderson’s lack of match fitness having not played since February because of groin surgery.
He was due to play against Austria but felt discomfort but did come off the bench to play the second half of Sunday’s win over Romania, seeing a penalty saved.
That injury lay-off meant Henderson didn’t feature in the March internationals and he only played in two of the eight matches played in the autumn – home and away to Belgium.
Jordan Henderson’s lack of match fitness is a concern for Southgate ahead of the Euros
The Liverpool man did play the second half against Romania and saw a late penalty saved
While Henderson brings passing accuracy and willing involvement, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips – in conjunction with Mason Mount – have offered a strong midfield for England
Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips have been favoured by England of late, usually alongside Mason Mount, and the performance of 17-year-old Jude Bellingham against Austria means it won’t be a disaster if Henderson misses one or more games at the tournament.
What Henderson offers is willing involvement as he’s always running and moving into positions to receive the pass.
A comparison of his stats from 28 games for Liverpool last season show he averages 87.36 touches on average as opposed to 66.5 for Phillips at Leeds and 62.14 for Rice at West Ham.
Declan Rice looks to be a guaranteed starter for England at the Euros in front of the defence
Kalvin Phillips also looks at home in an England shirt and has become a regular in the team
With this greater frequency of passing, Henderson makes far more accurate passes and seldom gives away possession.
But England don’t necessarily lose that if he isn’t in the side.
A study of England’s last five matches – of which just one saw Henderson feature – in comparison with those of the other 23 teams at the Euros shows they have one of the highest passing accuracy percentages.
In that same time frame, they’re second only to Holland when it comes to the number of forward passes made.
Now there is the caveat that three of those games were against Iceland, San Marino and Albania, three of the lower-ranked teams in world football, but it shows the favoured midfield of Phillips, Rice and Mount is effective in getting the ball forward.
England have ranked highly for passing accuracy compared to other teams at Euro 2020
Of the 24 Euro teams, only Holland out-perform England for number of forward passes
Rice and Phillips have both performed well for their clubs this season.
Their tackle and duels won stats are solid and this will be essential in shielding a back line that might not be at full strength for at least some of the tournament in Harry Maguire’s absence.
It was telling that Southgate chose to call up Brighton’s Ben White, a centre-back with just two caps, to fill the vacancy left by Alexander-Arnold’s withdrawal.
There must be a concern that in Maguire’s absence, England could be vulnerable at the back with Tyrone Mings not looking too assured in the Austria friendly.
Conor Coady, John Stones and White are the other options and Southgate is likely to fall back on the three-ma defence, making use of Walker, to secure things.
Ben White was called into the England squad as defensive cover with Maguire sidelined
Maguire (second left) was left with watching brief on Sunday as he comes back from injury
Should it be Chilwell or Shaw at left-back?
There really is little to split Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell and Manchester United’s Luke Shaw when it comes to deciding who starts at left-back.
They’ve both enjoyed excellent seasons though in the end Chilwell trumped Shaw by winning the Champions League whereas United lost their Europa League final.
It’s entirely possible that Southgate will rotate them throughout the tournament or make tactical substitutions in the second-half of games to keep them both fresh.
A head-to-head comparison of Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw shows very little to separate them
Ben Chilwell capped an impressive season with Chelsea by winning the Champions League
But there would be disappointment for Shaw (right) and Man United in the Europa League final
When it comes to stats for last season, however, it’s clear that Chilwell does have the edge. He scored more goals and had more assists than Shaw and his defensive attributes were marginally better.
That’ll be of greater significance if Southgate wants an orthodox left-back in a defensive four.
If it’s a left wing-back, actually Shaw has the edge when it comes to key passes and successful dribbles but there really isn’t much in it.
Was Southgate right to pick Calvert-Lewin over Watkins?
In the end, there was room in the 26-man squad for just one back-up centre forward to Harry Kane.
The place went to Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin, with Aston Villa man Ollie Watkins the unlucky one to miss out.
Really, it would have been pretty remarkable had Watkins, after his first season as a Premier League footballer, been in an England tournament squad but in the end Southgate didn’t have space.
The stats suggest it was the correct call to go with Calvert-Lewin, who not only scored five more goals last season but scores more often and has the superior goal conversion ratio.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin got the nod ahead of Ollie Watkins in the England squad for the Euros
Last season’s stats suggest Southgate was correct to pick Dominic Calvert-Lewin ahead of Ollie Watkins as England’s back-up centre forward to Harry Kane
There is evidence to suggest Watkins would have been a more well-rounded forward – he laid on five assists to the Everton man’s one – but England aren’t exactly short in this regard.
The stats of both men look pretty meagre compared to Kane’s, however.
Not only did he score 28 goals, winning the Premier League Golden Boot once again, but he laid on 16 assists for Spurs.
And Kane puts away one in every two ‘big chances’ that come his way, an absolutely crucial aspect of tournament football. Not that the other two were that far behind him.
Watkins had a very good season with Aston Villa but didn’t quite make the final 26
Captain Harry Kane will be central to England’s chances of performing well in the tournament
Kane was top scorer at the last World Cup and will be absolutely integral to England’s chances of going deep into the Euros. The whole nation prays he stays fit and keeps his scoring form.
Overall, England’s chance creation ranks very highly of late. In their last five matches, in November last year and in March, only Italy and Holland have carved out more opportunities.
England have been good at craving out chances in recent games, with only Italy and Holland having more shots than them. Belgium and Denmark tend to be the most accurate
Who supplies the magic?
England appear far more blessed with skilful and technically-astute players than at any previous tournament.
Southgate will be straining to get at least two of Mason Mount, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish into his starting line-up in order to crack the opposition defence.
All three are more than capable of conjuring a bit of magic to make the difference and keep England rolling on in the tournament.
They’ve all enjoyed superb seasons – Mount won the Champions League with Chelsea, Foden shone even in an outstanding title-winning Manchester City side and Grealish got his England breakthrough.
Jack Grealish takes on Austria during last Wednesday night’s friendly fixture on Teesside
Jack Grealish, Mason Mount and Phil Foden can all bring something to the table for England
All have impressive stats for the campaign and each brings plenty to the table.
Foden has the more eye-catching goal return, with 16 for City, and also set up a further 10 goals, the same as Grealish managed for Aston Villa.
Mount carved out the most clear-cut chances, while Grealish played the most key passes, showing his ability to thread the ball through a defence. The Villa man is also the superior dribbler.
Mason Mount capped a great season with Chelsea by winning the Champions League
Phil Foden was instrumental as Manchester City won the Premier League title impressively
But this really isn’t a competition. These three need to be working in tandem and can all occupy different positions in the side.
If all of them are on song during the tournament and link together effectively, England have a genuine chance of going all the way.