Since 2009 you can rely on a few things happening almost every year: a Twitter scandal, a desperate politician making a well-paid, opportunistic dash for the jungle… and England qualifying for a major tournament with relative ease.
There are always plenty of things to moan about with the England national team, but having any problems whatsoever reaching a World Cup or a Euros isn’t one of them.
Since the failure to reach Euro 2008, England have topped every qualification group, playing 74 matches and losing just two of them (one of which was a dead rubber 1-0 defeat against Ukraine at the end of qualification for the 2010 World Cup). Their only meaningful defeat came away at the Czech Republic in October 2019. They still topped that group by six points.
It is easier than ever to qualify, but not impossible to mess it up. The Netherlands missed out on Euro 2016 and the World Cup two years later. Italy somehow missed the World Cups in 2018 and 2022 and were still sweating on Euro 2024 qualification up to the final seconds of their final match last night.
Therefore, England should be quietly praised for their qualification efficiency… but we should also expect them to qualify. Ultimately, reaching tournaments is a given when they have so much quality at their disposal. What we only really care about isn’t qualification, or the FIFA rankings, or the Nations League, but how well England do in major tournaments. That is all that matters.
So, a year on from the World Cup and seven months away from the Euros, how are England placed? Have we learned anything from the qualifiers? Are they good enough to win the Euros? Have they improved recently under Gareth Southgate? Is the XI pretty fixed or are there spaces to fill?
Here are England’s burning questions…
Can England improve on their World Cup showing?
If you take England’s quite decent performance against France in the quarter-finals in Qatar a year ago as a baseline (also taking into account France are the benchmark as the best team in Europe), if the match were to be replayed tomorrow would England have a better or worse chance of winning?
Well, slightly better, owing almost exclusively to the continued emergence of Jude Bellingham as one of the best players in the world. Bellingham was good at that World Cup, but he has since reached greatness, both for Real Madrid and also for England. In a white-hot, moustache-singeing, lift-your-kilts-in-the-air atmosphere at Hampden Park the other month, Bellingham at times looked like he was playing as the only grown man in a youth game. Even some Scots applauded him off.
He followed that up with the defining performance of his England career so far when inspiring his team-mates and everyone in the stands as Italy were beaten at Wembley.
England are a team that, in lieu of having a tactical mastermind as a coach who can conjure up a magic formula that other teams can’t work out, will rely on individual brilliance to win them the big games (as well as an organised and solid defence, something Southgate can do).
Bellingham gave Scotland the runaround at Hampden (Eddie Keogh – The FA via Getty Images)
Therefore it will probably be up to Bellingham and Kane (and a supporting cast of Bukayo Sako, Phil Foden and Declan Rice) to win them the Euros. They will have to hope Madrid and Bayern Munich are knocked out of the Champions League early and that the lesser intensity of La Liga and the Bundesliga leaves the pair fresher than they would have been in the breathless chaos of the Premier League.
It has only been a year since the World Cup but otherwise, to answer the original question, it is basically the same team, same formation (sometimes a slight variation to 4-2-3-1) and same tactics. England lined up against France with Jordan Pickford in goal, a back four of Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw, a midfield of Rice, Bellingham and Jordan Henderson and a forward line of Kane, Saka and Foden. Which is probably the team Southgate would still pick tomorrow if everyone was fit.
Basically, no pressure, Jude.
Will Southgate’s trusted players get minutes at club level?
Centre-back looked like an open spot a few months ago but then Maguire was still first choice for England when he was fourth choice and not kicking a ball for Manchester United, so now that he’s firmly back in favour at Old Trafford, he looks set to be in Southgate’s XI in Germany next June.
Southgate has looked at Marc Guehi, whose maturity and composure have stood out, Lewis Dunk (who was excellent in that friendly in Scotland) and a bit at Fikayo Tomori but, if fit, Maguire is very much still the man to partner Stones.
There are question marks over the fitness of left-backs Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell, which of course need to be answered. At right-back, Reece James has the talent to be first choice but would need a full and flying rest of the season in Chelsea’s XI. The fact he sat out this month’s internationals does not bode well and even then, it is very much Walker’s shirt and he has produced some of his best-ever England performances in the past 12 months.
Southgate has remained loyal to Harry Maguire (Alex Grimm/Getty Images)
Rice and Bellingham are fixed, as are Kane and Saka. In the increasingly peculiar absence of Raheem Sterling, Foden and Marcus Rashford look to be ahead of Jack Grealish in the left forward pecking order.
Is Sterling being unfairly overlooked by Southgate, or have England simply moved on?
And then there is central midfield. It is baffling that Henderson continues to command a senior position, not in the squad because of what he brings in terms of leadership, but in the team, as in the actual football pecking order, despite him playing in front of about 800 people in an inferior league in Saudi Arabia every week.
If his performances for England were impeccable it would make more sense but, as with Sterling, there is a sense of stubbornness about Southgate’s persistence here. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s emergence as a genuine midfield option could change things, as could some regular football, possibly on loan, for Kalvin Phillips who started both qualification wins over Italy and is integral to Southgate’s preferred approach. But if Phillips doesn’t kick a ball for Manchester City in the second half of the season, should he start in the Euros?
Who will be the subject of the summer’s ‘clamour’?
With squads being reduced back to 23 players, having been bumped up to 26 at Euro 2020 and last year’s World Cup, competition is fierce. That may make it difficult for a player from outside the established group to make a late dash for a place. That doesn’t mean fans and pundits won’t be calling for it to happen, of course.
If you take that stock XI from earlier, plus two backup ’keepers in Aaron Ramsdale and Sam Johnstone/Nick Pope, along with fringe XI players such as Rashford, Grealish, James Maddison, Kieran Trippier, one of Shaw/Chilwell and Guehi, who all look to have a squad spot nailed down, then suddenly you are only down to four or five places left.
Cole Palmer and Rico Lewis benefited from injuries to earn their first caps this month and Lewis’ versatility in covering the full-back spots and being able to play in midfield could make him a late contender, particularly in a smaller squad.
If you want a genuine noisy “get him on the plane” clamour, you are probably looking at Anthony Gordon, particularly as those Geordies can shout very loudly. Gordon is the kind of rabble-rousing, buzzy, explosive, arse-in-the-air player for whom the word ‘clamour’ was invented. If he keeps taking on players at will and scoring loads of goals, then the official best player at last summer’s Euro Under-21 tournament, who is two-footed and very fancy-free, could have someone like Grealish sweating on his place.
Other clamour contenders would include Ruben Loftus-Cheek if he was playing in England (it seems that consistently good form for AC Milan does not guarantee much attention from Southgate, as Tomori can tell you), or Morgan Gibbs-White if he was hitting the heights of last season for Nottingham Forest.
And then there’s Ivan Toney. It feels hard to believe that he has still only played once in an England shirt. He didn’t go to Qatar (the betting allegations came to light six days after Southgate named his squad, with Toney believing the timing was linked to him being left out) but, while Kane of course leads the line if fit, no one else has really stepped forward and nailed down the understudy spot, with Callum Wilson, Eddie Nketiah and Ollie Watkins being the primary contenders.
The latter started in North Macedonia on Tuesday evening but only had 11 touches of the ball in just under an hour before being substituted. That is perhaps a reflection on England’s inability to play the kind of football a striker like him thrives upon (he has, after all, scored 18 Premier League goals this calendar year), or at least, without Bellingham in the team.
If Toney can hit the ground running when he resumes his football career in January, he will certainly be under consideration. If only for his penalties…
Could Ivan Toney finally make his second England appearance in 2024? (Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)
Is it finally time to loosen the handbrake…?
If this is to be Southgate’s final tournament as England manager — and you do kind of get the impression lately that he’d had enough — then he has once more chance to deliver on the lofty expectations that he himself has raised.
A final, a semi-final, a quarter-final since 2018, three good/very good tournaments in their own ways, and you can argue progress has been made almost continuously along the way in terms of the evolution of the team.
Can they take the next/final step and reach a level they haven’t managed before under Southgate? Bellingham, Kane and Rice all moving up the football pyramid this summer, all Champions League regulars now (most of the squad are) will help make England a better team, although there is also a case for saying the team are outgrowing Southgate.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t incapable of lifting them near to the level of, say, a France, albeit England are probably two top-level players (a centre-back and a central midfielder) short of doing that.
Will he take the handbrake off, as most people tend to call for him to do at tournaments? Does he need to? Tournaments aren’t generally won that way. What you want more from Southgate is proactive substitutions in the big knockout games, rather than reactive. And a little more tactical invention. England just don’t have the defence to win it otherwise.
This does all scream ‘get through the groups easily and then bow out to a superior team, probably France or Portugal, in the semis despite playing really well’. But then there’s Jude…
(Top photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images)