It is hard to argue that English football suffers the most scrutiny from their supporting countryman in all of football.
As European league seasons reach their climaxes, the hype for the delayed Euro 2020 competition has begun.
And while we pray for a COVID-less couple of months until June, we look forward to the excitement of another major international football tournament. With this comes the resurfacing of the eternal debate as to what England’s best squad is.
Which collection of footballers, which assembly of puzzle pieces can come together to win England their first European Championship and ‘bring football home’?
I’m going to attempt to answer that question. Here’s the 23-man squad Gareth Southgate should roll with this June.
Goalkeeper: Dean Henderson
Backups: Nick Pope, Sam Johnstone
Admittedly, the decision for the starting GK could come down to a coin-flip-like decision, as England have a number of highly talented goalkeepers in their midst.
Crucially, though, Jordan Pickford isn’t up to the standard any more. He comes off as clumsy and prone to error, and with the quality of the three aforementioned keepers, his days are numbered as England’s first choice.
Henderson would be my first choice, based off his excellence in carrying Sheffield United last season, and the glimpses we’ve seen of him this year at Manchester United.
Sam Johnstone has shown he’s an excellent shot-stopper this season, remaining one of the major reasons West Brom are yet to be relegated. While unlikely to pierce the starting XI, he’s a shout.
Left wing-back: Luke Shaw
Backup: Ben Chilwell
Luke Shaw has been the breakout of the season this year for Manchester United. While Bruno Fernandes will likely snatch all the end-of-season awards and accolades, Shaw’s contributions will be recognised by United fans and beyond, with him already being referred to as the league’s ‘new best left-back’.
His breakthrough in form has highlighted his attacking prowess, ranking first among defenders for chances created (52) this season. Ben Chilwell is a solid backup, as well, perhaps offering more shooting threat than Shaw.
Centre-backs: John Stones, Harry Maguire, Kyle Walker
Backups: Eric Dier, Tyrone Mings, Connor Coady
The same back-three that Southgate took to Russia in 2018. One notable difference from then to now is the emergence of John Stones as one of the league’s best defenders, only this time he’ll be alongside Harry Maguire, who doesn’t strike as much composure into his fans as Ruben Dias does at City.
However, this is a solid back-three. A back-three with World Cup semi-final experience.
As for the backups, out of the available options I’d be most confident with these three as reserves. Maybe Michael Keane could get a look in, maybe Ezri Konsa on the back of Villa’s strong defence this season.
Right wing-back: Reece James
Backups: Kieran Trippier, Trent Alexander-Arnold
Now, this is a position where the competition heats up. I can definitely see Southgate playing TAA, should he pick up his form towards the back end of the season, with the wing-back position potentially favouring his crossing game and general attacking intentions.
Trippier is also one who has been playing a lot for England as of late and has much more experience than the other two, again dating back to Russia 2018. There’s also a lot of quality left out here, such as Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who is defensively streets ahead of the other options, but doesn’t pose the same attacking threat.
Reece James should start for England.
To be clear, I’m not a Chelsea fan, but I have been massively impressed by James this season. Under Thomas Tuchel’s system, he has the experience of the RWB role, and poses a great threat through crosses, as well as in his shooting game.
Defensively, too, he has been part of a massively successful Chelsea backline that has conceded just two goals in 13 matches. He’s my first choice.
Whether Southgate agrees, we’ll have to wait and see.
Centre midfielders: Jordan Henderson, Declan Rice
Backups: Mason Mount, Phil Foden
This midfield doesn’t sound the same alarms as the like of England of old, when the issue was to try and fit the likes of Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard onto the field together. However, this is a solid pairing.
Two defensively sound choices. Two players with experience leading their respective clubs.
With this formation, defensively-disciplined centre-mids are crucial, considering the intended attacking freedom of the wingers. Foden and Mount provide big headaches in this 3-4-3 system.
Both incredibly talented attacking midfielders, but not ones that you’d be confident playing alongside a defensive-minded midfielder (most likely Henderson as first choice) in a midfield two.
Foden has played from the left for the bulk of this season, which doesn’t really help when you consider the choices Southgate has for the left side. Mount is more-so strictly centrally attacking.
Both these players are immensely talented and it seems criminal to leave them out of a starting side.
Perhaps coming off the bench, depending on the scenario of the game, will be calling for these two. Or it might come down to an opposition-dependent decision for Southgate for this midfield setup.
Left wing: Jack Grealish
Backup: Marcus Rashford
Here’s where things get juicy.
Jack Grealish has been on everyone’s mind when it comes to England talk. Does a setup like a 3-4-3 hinder his play-style?
Regardless, Grealish makes the starting team. The Villa captain has the third-most chances created this season in the Premier League, despite missing six games now with injury. Give him the ball and stuff happens.
Rashford can be the perfect bench player, coming on with speed in abundance and the quality on the ball to match it, to terrorise oppositions in late stages of the game. Grealish can even be moved to more central attacking roles to accommodate Rashford.
The United man provides a faster and more direct approach, while Grealish is the crafty playmaker. Foden is also among the mix of potential left-sided players.
Right wing: Raheem Sterling
Backup: Jadon Sancho
While traditionally a left-winger for Manchester City, Sterling is more than capable of delivering from the right, as he’s done so for his country on numerous occasions in the past to accommodate for the talent on the left. As the most experienced of all these wing options, I can’t see him not making the starting XI.
Jadon Sancho, however, is the only out-and-out traditional right-winger, and a very good one at that. Twelve goals and 16 assists in all competitions so far this season is decent.
His current injury, which has left him out of this current international period, won’t help his case to crack into the starting squad, but he’s definitely in with a shot.
Striker: Harry Kane
Backups: Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Patrick Bamford
Kane obviously starts – that doesn’t need justification. If England are to get anywhere in this competition it’ll be through his boots (and possibly head).
The backup choices are where there’s more competition.
I’m a big fan of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and his predatorial instinct. With the quality of crosses from out wide, he acts as another aerial threat, or a big figure to get his body in the way of a driven cross to see it into the net, as he does so often for Everton inside the six-yard box.
I’ve chosen Patrick Bamford as the backup to the backup. He’s had a more impressive season than Ollie Watkins, who is the other option for this position, and the current choice in the most recent squad. But I’ve gone for Bamford for no clear reason – perhaps he provides more a left-footed threat? Who knows.
Regardless, he’ll be the third choice behind Kane and DCL.
Who misses out?
Jordan Pickford, Michael Keane, Ezri Konsa, Jesse Lingard, Harvey Barnes, Bukayo Saka, Ollie Watkins, James Ward-Prowse, Jude Bellingham all miss the Championships.
Kindly let me know below, Roarers.