Sterling form and Henderson fitness mean dilemmas for Gareth Southgate

The right-back conundrum
Gareth Southgate has avoided a major pre-tournament issue – and offering his critics a stick with which to beat him – by selecting the hugely popular Trent Alexander‑Arnold. The manager has included him, he says, because the 22-year-old is one of the nation’s best 26 players and not because he has been swayed by public opinion. It does not matter to Southgate that he has three other right-backs, all of whom have had stellar seasons and would seem to be ahead of Alexander-Arnold in the pecking order. Southgate made the point that Kieran Trippier could play at wing-back, Reece James on the right of a central defensive three and wing-back, and Kyle Walker likewise or even at left‑back. James has even stepped into midfield for Chelsea. Flexibility is the key. Alexander‑Arnold is simply an excellent option to have, although it remains to be seen how he will get minutes.

Leadership of Maguire and Henderson
Nothing that Southgate said about Harry Maguire, who damaged ankle ligaments for Manchester United at Aston Villa on 9 May and has not played since, made it sound as though the centre-half would be available for the opening Euro 2020 game against Croatia or, indeed, the remainder of the group phase. The same was broadly true of Jordan Henderson, who has not featured since the end of February and groin surgery, although the midfielder would seem further along in his rehabilitation; Henderson could get minutes in the friendly against Austria on Wednesday night. It was all about them having the “possibility” to be involved at the finals and, if they did not “get there”, there was cover in a 26-man squad. What shone through, though, was Southgate’s desire to be able to draw upon their off-field leadership as this is a relatively callow group. Only nine of the squad have more than 25 caps.

Going back to a back three?
Maguire’s likely absence for a part of the tournament does raise the prospect of Southgate playing it safer at the back with a reversion to three central defenders. The manager had used the system for most of the season only to go with a back four in the three March fixtures. If Henderson were missing in front of the defence, it could further influence Southgate into wanting the greater security. Again, flexibility is vital and it would not be a problem for Southgate, who always wants to be difficult to beat in the first instance. “A lot of the patterns in our attacking play, in particular, are the same whether we play with a three or a four,” he said. “We still have the same combinations, the same types of runs. It’s just different personnel who end up in those positions. So it actually isn’t as a big a deal for us as people might feel.”

Central midfielders set to take strain
It is a curiosity that Southgate has as many right-backs as central midfielders. It is true that Mason Mount can operate as one of the No 8s in a 4-3-3 formation but the manager is reluctant to use him in a midfield two in a 3-4-3. Southgate has made it clear he considers Phil Foden and Jack Grealish to be in competition for the wide attacking berths, and Bukayo Saka has also been listed as a forward. And so step forward Jordan Henderson, Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips and Jude Bellingham. And a Henderson some way short of match fitness. The engine room of the team faces quite a strain and it was why there was surprise at the omission of James Ward-Prowse, who had felt like a certain pick in March. Southgate described Bellingham, 17, as a “phenomenon” who had earned his inclusion with his Champions League displays for Borussia Dortmund against Sevilla and Manchester City.

Rashford’s and Sterling’s struggles
Arguably the biggest dilemma for Southgate concerns Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling who, as recently as the March internationals, were considered to be his first-choice selections in the wide positions up front. Southgate likes to use their pace to stretch opposing defences, particularly with Harry Kane sometimes dropping back to pick passes, and he prizes their productivity in front of goal. The problem is that they have mislaid their best form and, in Rashford’s case, peak fitness, too; the Manchester United player has had foot and shoulder issues for some time. Rashford’s numbers have dropped since the turn of the year but the bigger problem has been the lack of spark about many of his performances, while Sterling has endured a difficult time at Manchester City, scoring only once since late February and losing his place for some of the team’s biggest games. He did start the Champions League final defeat by Chelsea when he struggled to make an impact.

In-form Sancho could be a wildcard
Jadon Sancho has felt like a peripheral figure in the England set-up this season. Having started against Iceland and Denmark in September, the Dortmund winger was dropped after breaching Covid rules to attend a surprise birthday party for Tammy Abraham in October. Although he started and scored against the Republic of Ireland in November, he has otherwise been used as a late substitute and he missed the March internationals because of a muscular problem. It was one that kept him out for seven weeks but, since his return towards the end of April, he has been in scorching form, helping to drive Dortmund to a previously unlikely top-four finish and lighting up the German Cup final, scoring twice in the 4-1 win against RB Leipzig. Sancho had been good since the turn of the year up until the injury – his focus seeming sharper – and he has picked up where he left off; a major tonic for Southgate.