England’s Gareth Southgate is blessed with once-in-a-generation attacking talent his managerial counterparts at this European Championship would love – Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling. Harry Kane is pretty handy too.
But his central defensive leader, Harry Maguire, suffered ankle ligament damage on May 9 and only returned to full training yesterday. Tyrone Mings was less than reassuring in the warm-ups.
The roundheads would focus on protecting that soft central defence, the cavalier counter is you had best score plenty of goals.
England scored 37 in eight qualifiers, conceding six. Since the world changed, Wales, Iceland and San Marino have been beaten three-, four- and 5-0 but usually against higher calibre opponents, the football was stodgy.
When Southgate plays 3-4-3, as he may against Croatia on Sunday, he has favoured two ball-winning central midfielders and proper defenders at wing-back, leaving three wonderful attackers to work it out themselves.
Declan Rice starts as the favoured holding midfielder and the lengths Southgate went to for Jordan Henderson probably make him his choice alongside.
Liverpool’s captain was the 2019-20 Premier League’s most influential player and is a leader even beyond football. But with only 45 minutes of friendly football since February 20, starting on Sunday may be a push.
Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips, more than good enough to hold most midfields in this tournament, has already started alongside Rice four times in an England career not yet a year old. He plays differently for Leeds, where as the sole holder he has a big creative responsibility but little to run beyond the striker, his last open-play goal in October, 2019.
Through no fault of his own Phillips could find himself a target for critics wanting a more expansive England, particularly with the freshness of 17-year-old alternative Jude Bellingham.
Mount is the boldest option, equally adept in the hole or wide of a front three. Foden can do all those jobs too.
Who plays as the ‘gofer’ between Rice and the forwards and how may change from game to game and within them, but the starters will say a lot about England’s mood and go a long way to determining their fortunes.