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England's Chances Of Success This Summer

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Why England won’t be successful at EURO 2024 and why they will: An analysis of the Three Lions’ hopes in Germany.

The start of another major international tournament is upon us and the narratives are building around the Three Lions again. 
For the first time in almost eight years England are walking into a major tournament with a familiar but concerning sense of normality. Full crowds, one host nation and a simmering sense of expectation not experienced in some time.

I have compiled my thoughts on some of the reasons England may or may not find success in Germany.

Perhaps the first thing to do though is address the ambiguity surrounding what “success” means for England. For a noisy contingent of national support, the definition is clear – England must win, or Southgate has failed again.

In my memory “win or bust” hasn’t been levied at England in at least a decade and is it really fair this time around? One glance at the squads of Portugal and France would suggest not. On the contrary, when the form of Jude Bellingham, Harry Kane, Declan Rice and Phil Foden are considered, for some there is a creeping dread that another collection of riches may waste away trophyless and unfulfilled.

However you view success this summer here is why England may or may not achieve it.

WHY ENGLAND WON’T BE SUCCESSFUL

A Disrupted Backline

The back line of a successful national team must be one of two things – defensively elite or at the very least familiar and reliable. England’s back line going into this tournament is none of the above.

For the last three tournaments, England have relied on the unspectacular but dependable goalkeeper and centre back trio of Jordan Pickford, John Stones and Harry Maguire. These three have produced marvellous results, most notably a run to the Euros final in 2021 where England didn’t concede in the first 480 minutes of the tournament (Mikkel Damsgaard’s strike half an hour into the semi-final breaking the streak).

This time around only Jordan Pickford can be considered truly match ready. Harry Maguire pulled out of the squad late with injury and, regardless of what the naysayers at club level think, his commanding presence will be bitterly missed. John Stones should play but looked less than convincing in his half-fit performance in the FA Cup final and has reportedly struggled with illness in the lead up to the tournament. That means it’s likely one or both of Marc Guehi and Lewis Dunk that will play against Serbia in the opening game. Although commendable at club level, neither of this pair have represented England at a major tournament and with Southgate’s bold new pressing approach they could find themselves scarily exposed from the off.

Pressure Piling On Again

England are set to play their first “normal tournament” since EURO 2016 and just like the England of the early 2000s, the scorching gaze of the nation is burning on the players again.

Russia in 2018 was met by most of the country with indifference. After a decade of underachieving and embarrassment in France, the bar had never been lower; this allowed Southgate and his band of misfits to somersault spectacularly over the top of it.

Then came 2021. Although expectations were raised, a travelling tournament and half full stadiums meant, compared to previous tournaments, England’s players were relatively protected.

Finally in 2022 a winter tournament in the distant lands of Qatar afforded England a proportionally distraction and disturbance free World Cup to partake in. No such luxuries will be enjoyed this summer. England fans (ticket or not) will travel in their thousands to the easily navigable Germany, the press will surround the camp like a pack of hungry wolves and as mentioned earlier, the nation seems to have adopted the notion that this year it’s win or bust.

With the noise around Gareth Southgate reaching an annoying, eardrum splitting pitch, this tournament is the antithesis of pressure free. Even for the most experienced players in the England squad, this may be the first old school England tournament they have played in; with all the nonsense endured by the camps of Sven Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello to look forward to.

An Almighty Midfield Headache

For all England’s talents, Gareth Southgate has one burdensome puzzle to solve in the middle of the park.

With Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice guaranteed starters, who makes up the third midfield spot in England’s almost certain 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 is yet to be decided. With the mouth-watering talents of that duo, it feels like a midfield that is both a millimetre and a mile from perfection.

The options are endless, but ultimately unsatisfactory, and the choice for Southgate seems to be to shoehorn someone into an unfamiliar position or play a natural but inexperienced option.

Playing Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield or Jude Bellingham deeper and someone else in behind would feel slightly askew but both have proven themselves at the elite level. Alternatively, the normally conservative Southgate could roll the dice on the enticing but embryonic talents of Adam Wharton or Kobbie Mainoo; that pair can count their combined caps on one hand but have sparkled on every stage they’ve been presented with thus far. Finally, there is Connor Gallagher, the man with lungs the size of Stamford Bridge. Industrious off the ball, incomplete on it, he feels like the compromise between both camps and perhaps the likely choice. Either way I am glad it is not my problem to solve.

Strength of the Field

Sometimes at international level, a side can do everything right and simply not have enough to walk away with a trophy. I mentioned earlier the glittering of talents of Portugal and France, two squads which, if not as talented as England’s are certainly more complete. The resurgence of Spain and Germany must also be considered, after disappointing World Cup campaigns those familiar challengers appear to have found their spark again.

For me, England fall into the category of talented but flawed contenders rather than out and out favourites. Perhaps this is why I struggle so much with the entitled notion that it is a tournament England must win. International knock out football is notoriously cagey; settled by small margins and often a lot of luck. Tottenham Hotspur would not enter a Premier League season suggesting it’s the title or an Ange Postecoglou failure, and for me, England are promising contenders for the trophy but far from favourites.

WHY ENGLAND WILL BE SUCCESSFUL

Form Over Familiarity

One of the main criticisms of Gareth Southgate during his tenure has been his tendency to select from the same trusted group of players from previous tournaments. This summer has seen an abandonment of that selection process to make room for players that although inexperienced, have been delivering more consistently at club level.

Other countries at this tournament may boast more established international players but I would argue no squad is as in-form as the England team. It has been a much banded around statement that this year, England possess the best player in Spain, Germany and England’s domestic leagues – Jude Bellingham, Harry Kane and Phil Foden respectively. A point that is hard to argue when two of those three scooped up their division’s player of the season award and Harry Kane, the odd one out, contributed to 44 goals.

It’s not just England’s perceived big three that shimmered in 2023/24. In Cole Palmer, Ollie Watkins, Bukayo Saka, Jarrod Bowen and Anthony Gordon, England have five players that contributed to a staggering 133 goals in the top flight. It is a collection of forward options bursting at the seams with in-form talent and it may be enough to atone for the squad’s flaws elsewhere.

King Kane

A brief glance across the other squads present at Euro 2024 and it is clear there is a significant absence of one specific type of player, out and out, ruthless centre forwards.

Kylian Mbappe aside, the other challengers can’t come close to boasting a player of Kane’s qualities. Spain have the much-maligned Alvaro Morata, Germany have Niclas Fullkrug, a player that Kane outscored by 24 goals and in Scamacca, Italy have a forward that has netted just once for his country.

Even if you ignore the eye watering 36 goals and 12 assists in the Bundesliga, Kane has it all as a forward. He is a leader, boats an unrivalled ability to link play from deep and barring a penalty miss against France, which we won’t dwell on, he has always delivered for his country. In fact, with 63 goals in just 91 Three Lions appearances, the only conspicuous omission from Kane’s near faultless resume is a trophy. We have seen star players carry their countries to extraordinary heights at tournaments before; can Kane do that for England this time around?

In Southgate We Trust?

As alluded to earlier, scepticism surrounding England’s waistcoat clad leader has grown to unseen heights. However, even the most fervent of doubters cannot ignore the stone-cold stats that uphold Southgate’s tenure in charge of his country. The reality is that almost every criticism of Southgate can be met with an evidence based, near irrefutable response.
Too boring? England have scored 36 goals in his three major tournaments in charge, as many as they managed in the previous seven without him.

Only picks his favourites? Well, we know that is no longer the case.

No real success? The lack of silverware is an obvious caveat, but Southgate has won 11 games at major tournaments, more than any manager in England history. He also led England to the semi-final or beyond in 2018 and Euro 2020, matching the number of times England had been to the final four in the previous 50 years.

With so little contact time with players and so few games to tinker and tweak, a tactical mastermind is not required at international level. Instead, an international manager must successfully play the role of a political statesmen, deflect pressure away from their players and create a culture that fosters success; Southgate has seemingly mastered all these qualities.

It is culture creation which is undoubtedly Southgate’s greatest triumph; those that watched England pre-2018 will remember the tiresome and toxic barrage of energy that emanated from players, media and fans alike. The very fact that people care enough to criticise again is down to the man in the dugouts progress over the last six years.

Does he have limitations? Absolutely but he has proven he can achieve with this England team and EURO 2024 presents perhaps a final opportunity for Southgate to exorcise the demons of 96 and silence his doubters once and for all.

A New England Revolution

Spearheaded by the larger-than-life talent and personality of Jude Bellingham there is a sense that this tournament represents the changing of the guard for England.

Only Jordan Pickford, John Stones, Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier, and Harry Kane remain as players that contributed significantly in the 2018 World Cup (Trent Alexander-Arnold featured in the last inconsequential group game).

A new crop of precocious talents adorns the ranks of England’s squad. In Marc Guehi, Connor Gallagher, Kobbie Mainoo, Adam Wharton, Cole Palmer, Anthony Gordon and Eberechi Eze, England have six players aged 25 or under that are representing the senior side at a major tournament for the very first time. There is understandable concern over the lack of tournament experience in the 26 but perhaps this “new England” can go one better than the previous generation and finally end 58 years of hurt.

There you have it, reason for doubt as prominent as reason for optimism, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. The beauty of international tournaments is their unpredictability; a far cry from the increasing monotony of a money driven Premier League there is as sense that anything can happen this summer, particularly when it comes to England. So, soak up the sun, light the BBQ’s and keep everything crossed that this year football finally comes home.

The Football Hour will be back with Jake Smith, Paul Marsh and James Wilson from 6pm on Monday the 17th of June with all of the fallout to England's Group C clash with Serbia at the Veltins-Arena, Gelsenkerchin.

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