The European Championships are almost upon us, meaning debate about who should and shouldn’t go is raging on, and will right up until the tournament is over.
Having watched Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher going at it on Sky’s Monday Night Football, I have decided to build my own XI and squad for the tournament.
For me, England are far from favourites, but this is the strongest squad the nation has had since the ‘Golden Generation’, meaning success at the tournament would hardly be an underdog story. I have built a team based around balance, form, overall quality and left little room for sentiment – sorry, Eric Dier.
Here we go…
Goalkeeper – Jordan Pickford
It’s safe to say that England haven’t been blessed with truly great goalkeepers during the 21st Century. Howlers by Scott Carson and Rob Green come to mind, whilst a 39-year-old David James getting torn to pieces by Germany in 2010 also sticks out. All the while nations like Spain, Italy and of course Germany have been blessed with incredible depth between the sticks.
This is slightly different though as, whilst Pickford hasn’t enjoyed his best season at club level (still one better than many will say), he has generally been very solid for England and has already enjoyed some iconic moments with the nation. Out of the three main choices to keep goal for England, Pickford too has the best penalty saving record and is the most comfortable with his feet.
Assuming he returns to fitness in a timely manner, I would continue to start Pickford at the Euros, but expect him to face stern competition from Dean Henderson by the time Qatar 2022 comes around.
Right-back – Kieran Trippier
Without doubt, right-back is the position that England are the most blessed in with quality, thus meaning it is the position which has stirred up the most debate. All told, there are more than half a dozen viable options, but it’s Kieran Trippier who I have settled on.
With the left-hand side of England’s defensive options being more offensively inclined, I feel a more defensive option is needed on the right to add balance – with Trippier averaging more or the same amount of tackles, interceptions and clearances in league football this season when compared to the other most likely options on the right.
Naturally, these numbers are helped by Atlético Madrid’s pragmatic style, but the 30-year-old is still averaging more dribbles per 90 and has racked up the most assists so far this season – with his set-piece delivery also being a key reason for this addition.
Ultimately, however, against lesser opposition, there are better options on the right, as will be discussed later.
Centre-back – John Stones
If somebody had told me a year ago that John Stones was going to be a nailed-on starter at the Euros, my first inclination would have been that he had left the Etihad in order to get his faltering career back on track.
But instead, Stones has recovered from a bit-part role under Pep Guardiola (where he was utilised behind Fernandinho last year), to force his way back into the reckonings for both club and country – and the timing couldn’t be better. His once error-prone game is now showing maturity and dominance, with City only conceding seven league goals in games he’s played in since last November.
It’s almost as if a player, who played his role in two of the best Premier League sides ever seen – and is on his way to being in another – is actually quite good at football, and shouldn’t have been written off when going through a poor spell. Alongside a commanding centre-half, Stones has shone and should do again at the Euros.
Centre-back – Harry Maguire
Despite what you may read on Twitter, or the videos you might see on TikTok, Harry Maguire is in fact a very capable, leading and dominant centre-back, whose popularity only seems to have decreased based on the size of the fee paid for him in 2019 – something he had no control over.
Since his arrival at United, only Manchester City have kept more clean sheets, as he has helped elevate the Red Devils back into the Champions League and into the upper echelons of the Premier League table.
He might not be popular, but England are a better team when Maguire plays and he should do again this summer.
Left-back – Luke Shaw
This pick speaks for itself, in all honesty. Luke Shaw has been one of the best left-backs in the Premier League this season, and is now starting to reach the potential he was tipped to when Manchester United signed him in 2014.
Since the return of football last Summer, Shaw has evolved into a very offensive, progressive and dynamic full-back, racking up five Premier League assists so far this term as he continues to keep summer arrival Alex Telles on the bench.
As well as improving offensively, he’s refined his defensive game to the point where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has deployed him as a left-sided centre-half in a back three – versatility which could prove invaluable if Southgate decides to adopt the system like the previous World Cup.
Defensive-midfielder – Declan Rice
Moving into the midfield, I would like to see England deploy an anchorman to shield the back four, sitting just behind two more offensive eights – and Declan Rice is the perfect player to do it.
Whilst his route into international football was acrimonious to say the least, Rice has now earned his place in the team as he continues to enjoy an absolutely stellar season as the cornerstone of a terrific West Ham side. Not since the days of Owen Hargreaves have England had a defensive midfield player who could play as the destroyer, but also the ball carrying, pass spraying, all-action holder – until now.
It is important that Rice isn’t pigeonholed as purely a defensive player, though – and that’s something he knows. He currently ranks fourth in the league for kilometres ran, and has almost doubled his progressive carry distance from last season; stats which back up his own wishes to be more like Yaya Touré and Patrick Vieria. In the coming years, Rice could move forward into one of the advanced eight roles, but for now he is best placed at the base of the Three Lions’ engine room.
But, he has to prove his fitness prior to the competition, as he is currently struggling with a knee injury.
Central midfield – Mason Mount
The first of those more advanced eights is Chelsea star Mason Mount – another Englishman (like Rice, Shaw and Stones before him) enjoying his best ever season in the Premier League – even with the sacking of beloved mentor Frank Lampard in January.
Mount has continued to flourish under new Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel, with the German often playing Mount in a left-sided forward role, but the 22-year-old has shown incredible versatility throughout his short career. Whether it’s at attacking midfield, to the left of a striker, a wide midfield player or as an eight – Mount has shown a capacity to do it all and I believe he will eventually settle into this role best.
He adds energy, dynamism, creativity and a goal threat to this England side, and would be one of the men tasked with trying to unpick the lock of tightly packed defences such as Scotland, the Czechs and whoever they could face in the knockout stages. When paired with my next choice, I see the two dovetailing terrifically.
Central midfield – Jude Bellingham
Some eyebrows were raised when Jude Bellingham was the man chosen to replace an injured James Ward-Prowse during October’s internationals, after making just ten Bundesliga appearances. But, the 17-year-old has shown an ability to run games in both Germany and in the Champions League this season, as he continues to play the game like somebody ten years his senior.
Unsurprisingly, the boy is fearless, and has shown a great appetite to be able to perform both sides of the game. Pep Clotet, his manager at Birmingham, stated that his best position is as an offensive midfielder in a 4-3-3 – a statement held up by his close control and ability to burst into the box – but his boundless energy and strength in the tackle means he could play a more box-to-box role this summer.
Throwing him into the deep end of an international tournament may seem premature – especially with more experienced campaigners waiting in the wings – but Bellingham is more than ready to step up, as proved by his performances on the European stage this term.
He could well prove to be the final piece of the midfield jigsaw, and if you’re good enough, you’re certainly old enough.
Left-wing – Jack Grealish
In the Premier League this season, Jack Grealish is averaging the most key passes, the 4th most dribbles, is fouled the most often and has recorded sixteen goal involvements in just 22 games.
These numbers have led to comparisons with Eden Hazard’s play style, and Paul Gascoigne in terms of importance to his side. He’s gone from the category of, ‘he should get a call-up’ to ‘one of the first names on the team sheet’, in about eighteen months.
The only question mark over Grealish is his fitness heading into the tournament, but if he can prove that he’s ready for the Euros in the final games of the season, the 25-year-old is England’s best option against sides they’re likely to dominate.
Right-wing – Marcus Rashford
The next spot, like further down the right flank, also gave me some difficulty as England have multiple good options to choose from. But ultimately, I landed on Marcus Rashford.
With Jack Grealish on the other side, England need pace to complement the progressive running and creativity of the Villa man – which Rashford has in abundance. Whilst his off the field achievements have been widely reported, the 23-year-old is quietly enjoying another terrific season for Manchester United, contributing to 32 goals from a variety of positions.
This sort of form puts him ahead of Raheem Sterling for example, whilst his skill set and ability to play through the middle means I have preferred him to Jadon Sancho. With Harry Kane a certainty to start up front, his pace and runs in behind could make him the perfect foil for the Spurs superstar, with an opportunity to partner Kane with Grealish dropping in behind.
Striker – Harry Kane
The first name on the team sheet, the best player, the captain – there isn’t much to say about Harry Kane which hasn’t been said before, and he is an absolute shoe-in for pretty much anybody who is creating their own England side at the moment.
This year, Kane has exploded, just like José Mourinho promised when he took the Tottenham hot seat. At the time of writing, Kane has scored the most goals and laid on the most assists in the division – totalling 32 goal involvements in just 29 games and 45 in all competitions. Silly.
Fresh off the back of what will be his best and most complete season yet, I’m sure Harry Kane can follow up his golden boot from the last World Cup with another fine tournament performance at the sharp end of the Three Lions’ attack.
The rest of the squad
The man most likely to take the goalkeeper’s jersey off of Jordan Pickford this summer is undoubtedly Dean Henderson, as he appears to have finally wrestled Manchester United’s away from David De Gea.
In all honesty, there would be no complaints from me if Henderson was to get it. But, I believe England are better placed with the international consistency of Pickford for the time being, whilst Henderson hasn’t been without fault since keeping United’s goal.
Nick Pope may not be enjoying his best season at Burnley, but it still hasn’t been poor by any means. Whilst I like Sam Johnstone, I think the fact Pope has already played a backup role at a tournament means he is probably best placed to travel this time too.
When discussing the right-back position, I ended by stating there would be better options against weaker opposition – and here it is.
Of course, Alexander-Arnold is a terrific footballer, and his defensive deficiencies and dip in quality this season have been largely overexaggerated at times this year. Whilst I feel England need greater balance overall, they would be foolish not to utilise him this summer.
If only Aaron Wan-Bissaka was a left-back.
For many years during the naughties and early 2010s, very few English players plied their trade abroad – but perhaps we’re now seeing why. Jadon Sancho has been axed from many squads despite starring for Dortmund in recent years, whilst Chris Smalling and even Ashley Young have enjoyed renaissances without being put into the international question.
Fikayo Tomori is in danger of becoming another as, despite stellar form since signing for AC Milan on loan in January, the 23-year-old – who has perfect traits for Gareth Southgate’s side – hasn’t even been included in the discussion. Maybe that will change if he joins the Rossoneri permanently, but for now he’s in my squad ahead of Tyrone Mings and Conor Coady.
Gary Neville was mocked last week for suggesting that losing Harry Maguire would be bigger for England than Harry Kane, and whilst I understood his reasoning, I mainly disagreed as Michael Keane would be a ready made replacement.
Comfortable on the ball and in both a back four and five, Keane has put in numerous colossal performances this season as he has enjoyed his best ever season at Everton, and would be the leader England would need in Maguire’s absence.
I certainly wouldn’t have envisaged Ben Chilwell being anywhere but England’s starting XI at the start of the season, but the impressive form of Luke Shaw means the 24-year-old is in reserve for me.
If England were to deploy or move into a back five however, I would prefer to see the Chelsea man on the left side as Thomas Tuchel continues to mould him into shape.
Another man currently on the injury table, Jordan Henderson would have been a nailed-on starter if he had enjoyed another season similar to his Premier League winning exploits in 2019/20, but the delaying of the tournament has hindered the Liverpool skipper.
With the emergence of Jude Bellingham, I believe he is best placed to take up a more advanced role in what is a very dynamic England midfield. Although, if fit, Henderson should definitely come into the side to aid trickier games where they are less likely to have the ball.
Firstly, I can’t believe I’m writing it either. But the impact Jesse Lingard has made on West Ham over the past three months has been undeniable, and he shouldn’t be overlooked at international level.
Twelve goal involvements in his previous nine games – when he had managed just 64 minutes of league football since New Years Day of 2020 – is absurd. Many mockingly call him ‘Messi Lingard’, but those are numbers the man himself would be proud of. He has to go if he keeps this up, and he excites me more than James Ward-Prowse.
Of all the players not to make it into the starting XI, Phil Foden is the one I was the most desperate to cram in there somewhere. An absolute magician on the ball whose potential knows no bounds, as he continues to perform in what has been his best season yet.
Jack Grealish just has the edge on him, for the moment. But they are two different players, and for the time being I would prefer the Villa man. But it really is a toss of a coin.
It would be harsh to say that Raheem Sterling is having a bad season, but he has certainly fallen below the lofty standards he has set himself since the arrival of Pep Guardiola so far this term.
He has still had a hand in 24 goals this season, but for now he is just below Marcus Rashford in my pecking order.
I found it bizarre that, for some unknown reason, Jadon Sancho was axed from both Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher’s squads on last week’s Monday Night Football, despite proving to be one of the best under-21 players in Europe over the past few seasons.
A hub of creativity, Sancho has registered a staggering 60 assists in 130 Dortmund games and will certainly earn his fair share of caps over the years.
Prior to the start of this season, the backup striker role was there for the taking, with Tammy Abraham, Danny Ings and Callum Wilson – amongst others – vying for it.
But without doubt, Dominic Calvert-Lewin has proved to be the best possible understudy for Harry Kane this term, netting 23 goals in total. His pace, physicality and nose for goal could prove invaluable from the bench this summer.
In case Jordan Henderson, Jack Grealish or Declan Rice fail to prove their fitness ahead of the tournament, I would look towards James Ward-Prowse, Bukayo Saka and Kalvin Phillips.
Adding in Sam Johnstone as an emergency goalkeeper, and Ollie Watkins if Harry Kane suffers another niggling injury.
The likes of Kyle Walker, Reece James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Connor Coady, Tyrone Mings, Ezri Konsa, Ben Godfrey, Patrick Bamford and more are unlucky to be left out.