Alexander-Arnold, Dier and Abraham could be big-name casualties of Southgate's Euro 2020 squad but Pickford set for No1
IT sounds as if Gareth Southgate actually enjoys the mental torture of picking a 23-man squad for a major tournament.
The tough decisions, the horrible rejection phone calls, trying to ensure a perfect balance for every conceivable eventuality.
The England boss looks certain to leave out regular squad members such as Trent Alexander-Arnold, Eric Dier and Tammy Abraham.
Then he must choose one of Reece James and Kieran Trippier.
If Jordan Henderson is fit then there is a likely choice between Jude Bellingham and James Ward-Prowse.
And probably another call to make between Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho.
But when he was asked about suggestions that Uefa may allow bosses to name larger squads for the Euros, due to Covid concerns, Southgate said he was against the idea.
Wednesday’s 2-1 World Cup qualifying victory over Poland was England’s last match before Southgate names his Euros squad.
And the likelihood is he will only be naming a 23-man party with another group of players on standby in case of positive Covid tests.
Judging by Southgate’s words and actions, as well as conversations with those close to the England boss, there are plenty of significant pointers towards his Euro plans…
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- Jordan Pickford, not Nick Pope, will be England’s No 1 at the tournament.
- Southgate’s Plan A is a 4-2-3-1 with two holding midfielders — Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson or Kalvin Phillips, depending on the Liverpool skipper’s fitness.
- He will pick only eight defenders in his squad, with Kyle Walker and Luke Shaw certain to be included, as they can both operate in a back three if and when England shift to a 3-4-3.
- Jesse Lingard, completely out of the picture before his move to West Ham, is now pressing hard to make the Euros squad and could prove a wildcard.
Southgate had decided before these three qualifiers that a flat back four would be his go-to formation for the summer.
He said: “We’ve normally got so many good attacking options — ideally you want to get attacking players on the pitch and that’s harder with a back three.
“But there is that balance of making sure that we are not open at the back.
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“Heading into the World Cup in Russia we were very clear we were going to be 3-5-2 and were very clear we were going to pick the players to fit that system.
“We’re more fluid and adaptable now. We have some exciting wide players and players who can come in off the line and play as an attacking No 8 or No 10.
“Some of them are still learning how to win, needing experiences like the Poland game. But we’ve got to find a way of getting them into the squad.”
Southgate was heartened by the return to form of John Stones at Manchester City and felt that pairing him with Manchester United’s Harry Maguire, behind two defensive midfielders, would give England the right balance.
It does not seem that Stones’ horrible error, which gifted Poland an equaliser, has spooked him in returning to a back three and wing-backs for England’s tournament opener against Croatia.
Southgate partially blamed the pass from keeper Nick Pope for Stones’ error, indicating that Pickford’s superior distribution will earn him the nod over the Burnley player.
And Southgate says he will pick only eight defenders in his squad — a further suggestion that a flat back four is his preference.
Asked whether he needed to name more than eight defenders, he said: “I don’t actually think we do.
For example, in Russia we played Kyle Walker in a back three. Luke Shaw has played in a back three for Man United. Ben Chilwell has as well.
“It’s not essential to have more than eight and the more defenders we take, the less we have in other areas.
“We’ve got to have enough to cover ourselves in case of problems during the tournament but we also have to get that balance right.”
Southgate was glowing about West Ham man Rice and Leeds defender Phillips — two men who have never played Champions League football but who are firmly in his plans.
Rice, man of the match against Poland and Albania, is a nailed-on starter at the Euros, while Phillips could well feature if Henderson — England’s one current injury doubt for the tournament — fails to recover from groin surgery.
Southgate said: “Declan has been a very important player since game one. We’re really pleased that we’ve found Kalvin as well in that area of the pitch.
"The top teams have those players who can break the game up but can use the ball well and those two are in that category.
“Very often when we’ve been without Henderson, we’ve looked short of that type of player.
“Declan’s tactical maturity has been outstanding. His reading of danger, the number of times where he’s come across at the right moment, intercepted play, come away with the ball and then used it well.
“We know he’s not had those big matches, those latter stages of big cups, European ties, so a lot of his development has been with us.”
Of course, Henderson may not be fit and there could be more injuries, which end up making Southgate’s squad selection easier.
But as far as the England manager is concerned, where would be the fun in that?
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