Gareth Southgate has no intention of picking a “fantasy football” line-up at Euro 2020 and is preparing to omit a couple of fan favourites in Sunday’s opening game against Croatia.
The manager is leaning towards using 4-3-3 at Wembley, with Raheem Sterling set to start despite indifferent form for Manchester City in recent months. Jack Grealish and Marcus Rashford face a fight to make the XI, with Southgate prioritising the balance of his selection.
Southgate enters the tournament in a position of personal strength with his job believed to be secure until the Qatar World Cup at the end of next year, barring a disaster over the next month or so. The Football Association believes that Southgate’s young squad will be closer to their peak for Qatar and wants him to lead them at that tournament. He is under contract until the end of it.
Not that hopes are low at the FA and within the squad for the European Championship, with Southgate issuing a rallying cry on the eve of it. “We have to show that this squad has what is required to win,” he told ITV. “Some of our youngest players have got experience of big games. Tournaments are about hitting form at the right time and we have to bring everything over the next four weeks.”
Balance remains the watchword. Some supporters are keen for Southgate to accommodate as many of his attacking players as possible; they include Harry Kane, Phil Foden, Mason Mount and Jadon Sancho, along with Sterling, Grealish and Rashford. But it was instructive to hear Southgate’s assistant, Steve Holland, recall the story of Argentina’s travails at the 2018 World Cup and mention the line about “fantasy football”.
“Argentina had Dybala, Di María, Agüero, Higuaín, Messi,” Holland said. “Icardi didn’t make the squad. So you have an amazing array of talent but they went out in the round of 16. This is not fantasy football.
“It is nice to play that game but you can’t just throw four or five players together. What that team showed is that if you try to cram too many in, you don’t even get the best of the individuals that, if you play with fewer, they can provide. So our challenge is clear: we have to find the right balance.”
It should be noted that Argentina, who shipped nine goals in their four matches at that tournament, never had more than three of those attackers on at any time but it was nevertheless easy to see Holland’s broad point or, to put it another way, his message.
England fans will remember how, when the team were beaten in the last 16 of Euro 2016 by Iceland, the then manager, Roy Hodgson, finished the game with Kane, Rashford, Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy on the pitch.
Holland said that he and Southgate were clear about the starting XI and the formation for Croatia, although he made the point that fluidity would be everything. He said he expected all five substitutes to be used routinely, particularly when temperatures were high – Sunday is forecast to be the hottest day of the year in England; the game kicks off at 2pm – and that the system would very possibly change within matches. England were wedded to 3-5-2 at the 2018 World Cup but Southgate now feels comfortable in 4-3-3 or 3-4-3.
“Off the back of Euro 2016 and particularly the Iceland game – I have so much respect for Roy and his staff – but it’s been accepted that the sum of the parts didn’t represent what the capability was,” Holland said. “When the pressure came there was a bit of a performance fall because the players weren’t comfortable with that pressure.
“The No 1 priority for the Russia World Cup was to try and be very specific with the requirements and roles of the players in one way of playing. We are now in a different moment.
“The flexibility that is required now to play at the highest level is great. Manchester City play 4-3-3 normally but they defend 4-4-2 and they attack, pretty much, 2-3-5. Chelsea play 3-4-3 but they defend in a back four sometimes with one of the wing-backs pressing in midfield. Mason Mount sometimes has been a No 10 with the ball but, without the ball, he drops into midfield and makes a 5-3-2.
“The modern-day footballer is used to adapting. In March we played 4-3-3 and in the autumn we played 3-4-3 and were happy with both. Each is an option. I see it is quite possible that we start with one [formation] and finish with another, at times. Players are well drilled with both.”
On the heat in London on Sunday, Holland said: “The five subs is a good idea – it’s highly likely that 16 players will be involved in most games. Never more than now have starters and finishers to a game been more important.”