Perhaps the best indication to help predict who will start England’s first Euro 2020 match came at Wembley Stadium two months ago.
England edged Poland 2-1 in a qualifier for next year’s World Cup, in what was their first serious test of 2021. Gareth Southgate opted for what seems to be his favoured 4-3-3 system, with the back-three formation used during the 2018 World Cup and 2020 Nations League left in reserve as plan B.
On that March evening at Wembley there were plenty of clues as to how the team might set up. Mason Mount was given licence to attack from the midfield three, playing alongside the more conservative Declan Rice with Kalvin Phillips roaming from box to box, and this careful balance is likely to be Southgate’s preferred structure for Euro 2020.
Phil Foden started the game alongside captain Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling in a front three, while John Stones and Harry Maguire formed a centre-back partnership in between full-backs Ben Chilwell and Kyle Walker.
So how will England line-up against Croatia? After Southgate today named his provisional squad for the Euros, and with friendlies against Austria and Romania to come, we assess who holds pole position in each of the starting XI roles ahead of that first game 13 June.
Pole position: Jordan Pickford
The Everton goalkeeper still holds the ascendency since emerging before the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where he helped end England’s long penalty pain in a shootout win against Colombia. Pickford has retained Southgate’s trust even through some sticky spells, and his tournament experience combined with confident footwork makes him the leading contender to wear No1 this summer.
Closest contender: Dean Henderson
Nick Pope’s injury means he is a potential doubt for the tournament, so Manchester United’s rising star is the most likely to oust Pickford. Henderson has enjoyed a promising end to the season and should he start and thrive in the Europa League final this week then his chances will only be enhanced.
Pole position: Kyle Walker
It was not so long ago that Walker was dropped from the England squad and serious questions were being asked about his international future. Now, after a stellar season with Manchester City and a Champions League final to come, Walker has reasserted his position as the nation’s leading right-back – no easy feat in what is the most competitive position in Southgate’s squad.
Closest contenders: Kieran Trippier, Reece James
Take your pick: Kieran Trippier is Southgate’s trusted man, arguably England’s best player in Russia three years ago, arriving at the Euros on the back of a sensational La Liga title win where he played a key part in Diego Simeone’s well-drilled defence. Then there’s Reece James, consistently impressive for Chelsea and known to be highly thought of among England’s management team.
These two are better placed right now to start that opening game against Croatia than Trent Alexander-Arnold, despite his improving form in the back end of the season which helped propel Liverpool into the Champions League. Southgate has concerns over Alexander-Arnold’s defensive reliability, and it could yet cost the supremely talented 22-year-old his place in the final squad.
Pole position: John Stones
It seems a certainty John Stones will start the opening game, if fit. Similarly to several of this squad, Stones was integral in Russia but has had to fight back against form and fitness issues in the interim to be in Southgate’s thinking this time around. He has done that spectacularly so, to the point where he will almost certainly start Saturday’s Champions League final for Manchester City against Chelsea, and Stones is a shoo-in for the first fixture.
Injury doubt: Harry Maguire
Maguire would be certain to play if he was fully fit after an excellent season at centre-back for Manchester United. Southgate sees Maguire as a leader among his young squad and desperately needs the United captain to recover from the ankle injury which will keep him out of the Europa League final.
Closest contender: Tyone Mings
Conor Coady is the only centre-back to have started one of England’s three 2022 World Cup qualifiers outside the Stones-Maguire partnership, but it was Mings who featured at the back end of the Nations League campaign. Both are 28 years old, both are leaders for their respective clubs, Wolves and Aston Villa, and both have now been blooded internationally: Coady has four caps, Mings has eight. It is almost a dead heat but Mings’ league form gives him the edge, plus the fact he is naturally left footed and would complement Stones.
Pole position: Ben Chilwell
This is another close call, and many will think Luke Shaw has had a better season than Chilwell, but it is important to remember how much Southgate values loyalty and his existing relationships. Chilwell played most of the qualifying campaign for this tournament and he remains in pole position to start the opening game, if only by a nose.
Closest contender: Luke Shaw
Shaw, who had to pull out of the last international camp with injury, has been brilliant this season and would rightly feel a little aggrieved to start on the bench at Wembley on 13 June. One thing in his favour is his relationships with both Harry Maguire on the left side of Manchester United’s defence and Marcus Rashford down the flank. With two friendlies still to play, Shaw has time to demonstrate exactly why the left-back berth should be his.
Pole position: Declan Rice
Rice has enjoyed a great season with West Ham and Southgate has picked him regularly over the past 18 months. The 22-year-old has 15 caps in his brief England career to date and there is no doubt he will be adding to that tally this summer, should he stay fit.
Closest contender: Kalvin Phillips
If Rice isn’t fit then expect Phillips to play this role, given the doubts over Jordan Henderson’s fitness, and following such an impressive season at the base of Leeds’ midfield. More likely, however, is that Phillips plays as one of the two No8s running from box to box…
Pole position: Mason Mount
Mason Mount has played as one of two No10s for Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea, but Southgate has tended to use him in a deeper role, as he played against Poland two months ago. Expect Mount to given a midfield berth with plenty of licence to surge beyond Harry Kane and influence the action in the final third.
Injury doubt: Jordan Henderson
The Liverpool captain has not featured in the Premier League since February with a groin injury, although there were encouraging signs last week as he returned to Liverpool training and was named on the bench for the final game of the season. But with so little time to get up to speed, it seems unlikely he will start at Wembley.
Closest contender: Kalvin Phillips
The Leeds midfielder started the World Cup qualifier against Poland in March and is the leading candidate to replace Henderson as one of the two No8s. He too has an injury, however, after hurting his shoulder in the final game of the season, and is a slight doubt. The remarkably composed 17-year-old Jude Bellingham could be next in line to start against Croatia after an impressive season for Borussia Dortmund.
Pole position: Phil Foden
Foden started here against Poland and his reputation has only soared since that game in March, to the point where it would now be a shock if he didn’t start the Champions League final for City. Likewise, it would be a big surprise if he wasn’t in Southgate’s first XI, most likely on the right, although he has shown he can operate equally well from the left side.
Closest contender: Jadon Sancho
Sancho has had another good season for Dortmund, serving up 11 assists as his relationship with Erling Haaland blossomed. He remains one of England’s most talented young stars and the 21-year-old will undoubtedly be needed to make an impact at the Euros, even if his tournament begins from the bench.
Pole position: Harry Kane
The captain of the team looked sharp at the end of the season, recovering from an ankle injury to win the Premier League Golden Boot, and he will be aiming to top the scoring charts this summer after doing so in Russia three years ago. There will be plenty of attention on Kane after he signalled his intention to leave Tottenham this summer.
Closest contender: Dominic Calvert-Lewin
Should anything happen to Kane, or should England be in a position to rest players come the final group game against Czech Republic, Calvert-Lewin will step in. His form understandably tailed away after an explosive start to the season, but the 24-year-old has already shown Southgate he is not fazed on the international stage with four goals from seven caps so far.
Pole position: Marcus Rashford
Rashford has enjoyed another productive season in a Manchester United shirt with 21 goals and 15 assists in 56 appearances. His pace and direct running in behind will complement Kane’s all-round game and Foden’s preference to have the ball to feet. The only question mark is over his fitness: Rashford has been nursing a foot injury through the back end of the season.
Closest contender: Raheem Sterling
Sterling will push Rashford and Foden for one of the starting spots either side of Kane. He has not had his best season for City, to the point of losing his place in Pep Guardiola’s strongest XI, but if he can make an impact in the upcoming friendlies he might yet boost his chances. Certainly Sterling is considered a key member of the squad by Southgate, who counts the winger among his leadership group, and Sterling will play a significant role in the Euros regardless of whether he starts on 13 July.
Jack Grealish will also be pushing for a starting berth having recovered from a shin injury to feature at the back end of Aston Villa’s season. He lit up several England performances last year and there will be plenty of public clamour for his inclusion should he shine in either of the friendlies before the tournament begins.
Predicted starting XI vs Croatia: Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire, Chilwell; Phillips, Rice, Mount; Foden, Kane, Rashford.
Provisional England squad
Goalkeepers: Dean Henderson (Manchester United), Jordan Pickford (Everton), Sam Johnstone (West Brom), Aaron Ramsdale (Sheffield United).
Defenders: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Ben Chilwell (Chelsea), Conor Coady (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Ben Godfrey (Everton), Reece James (Chelsea), Harry Maguire (Manchester United), Tyrone Mings (Aston Villa), Luke Shaw (Manchester United), John Stones (Manchester City), Kieran Trippier (Atletico Madrid), Kyle Walker (Manchester City), Ben White (Brighton)
Midfielders: Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Jesse Lingard (West Ham), Mason Mount (Chelsea), Kalvin Phillips (Leeds), Declan Rice (West Ham), James Ward-Prowse (Southampton).
Forwards: Dominic Calvert-Lewin (Everton), Phil Foden (Manchester City), Jack Grealish (Aston Villa), Mason Greenwood (Manchester United), Harry Kane (Tottenham), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund), Ollie Watkins (Aston Villa).
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