England’s young squad ready to prove why they are the envy of the world

Harry Maguire: Needs reliable partner. Picture: Getty Images
Harry Maguire: Needs reliable partner. Picture: Getty Images
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It is the hope that kills you, but the England football team has real cause for optimism about 2020.

If the first two decades of the 21st Century have taught us anything, it is not to read too much into the Three Lions’ qualification campaigns.

There is an alarming fragility about them defensively, just as there is an exciting brilliance in attack.

Stuart Rayner

As the talent in European football has become increasingly concentrated on a small number of countries (just look at the draw for the first knockout round of this season’s Champions League for evidence), England have become brilliant flat-track bullies.

Ruthlessly seeing off the small fry might feel a bit hollow but is not to be sniffed at. Fail to do so, and you can miss major tournaments altogether. Do it in style and you can secure the seeding which makes the summer less daunting.

There is more excitement around the Three Lions than just a qualifying campaign in which they only scored fewer than four once, in the sobering blip that saw them beaten in the Czech Republic.

That it came on the back of a World Cup semi-final and a final in the inaugural Nations League suggests there is substance to England’s form. Even in the latter, though, where qualification was far stiffer, England showed a familiar flakiness in the summer sun.

Their young players are the envy of the world, even if some have struggled to make a mark on the short-termist Premier League, and perhaps crucially the Euro 2020 schedule is heavily loaded in their favour.

This celebratory European Championship is meant to be itinerant but whilst it cannot really be chalked down as the third major tournament England have hosted, they will enjoy plenty of home comforts.

Their group matches all take place at Wembley, as will the semi-final and final. That means just two away games if Gareth Southgate’s men reach the quarter-finals – and one of those could be in Dublin.

Uefa’s desperate attempt to cram as many matches as possible onto the television schedules means three will qualify from some four-team groups, so finishing second no longer carries the same threat.

In days gone by, it meant a guaranteed game against a group winner but as at the last World Cup, finshing second could suit England.

Winning Group D guarantees a match in the Republic of Ireland against the second-placed team in this year’s toughest group of France, Germany, Portugal and a play-off winner. Finish second and they will also face a second-placed side, from the less daunting Group E, in Copenhagen.

The worry about such a soft qualifying group is it has papered over England’s weaknesses.

There is an alarming fragility about them defensively, just as there is an exciting brilliance in attack.

Sloppy defensive errors were an unwanted feature of 2019. John Stones’s in the Nations League semi-final was the most costly, but there were plenty of others, with Everton’s Michael Keane paying the price.

Stones was part of an all-Yorkshire back three at the last World Cup, but has made just 28 Premier League appearances for Manchester City since. His club-mate, Sheffield’s Kyle Walker, has been cast aside since the Nations League finals.

Finding a regular central defensive partner for another Sheffield United product, Harry Maguire, has, therefore, been difficult. As well as Keane and Stones, Tyrone Mings has been tried this season. He looks the best bet, but two caps is not enough evidence to draw concrete conclusions from.

In contrast to right-back, where Walker has been forced out by Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kieran Tripper and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Southgate is not spoilt for choice. It does not help either that the midfield bodyguards have not stamped their authority. Jordan Henderson continues to be an unsung hero but Declan Rice has not nailed down an England place, just as Harry Winks has not at club level. Eric Dier is another who has regressed since the World Cup.

Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford is capable of brilliance and brainstorms, but whether Sheffield United’s uncapped Dean Henderson has time to apply pressure is questionable.

All managers seek perfection, but none find it, so the question is whether England can be good enough going forward to make up for their defensive lapses.

Raheem Sterling has grown immensely as a person and a footballer since Russia.

It is amazing to think that 18 months and 55 goals ago Sterling was being justifiably criticised as powder-puff in front of goal.

If the racism that followed England abroad was the most depressing aspect of 2019 – not that they do not have plenty of problems of their own at home – Sterling’s mature leadership in the fight against it was a real highlight.

He and Marcus Rashford are hugely exciting options either side of ever-reliable captain Harry Kane. Jadon Sancho offers something different as a genuine winger, Ross Barkley was quietly brilliant as an attacking midfielder in qualifying, yet Jack Grealish is making a strong case to take the Merseysider’s place.

If Grealish is not the traditional late runner into the team, a bit of luck at club level could make it Phil Foden. Alexander-Arnold could even play there and ease the congestion at right-back, too.

With so much in their favour, the new year should hold no fears for England.