Gareth Southgate’s lion hearts: England unleash a wave of young talent at Euro 2020 mission

0

In the end 33 players became 26 without too much fuss. It will be more challenging to turn those 26 into a perfect XI in time for Sunday.

A year ago, Gareth Southgate knew about half of his ideal base for the first game of the European Championship and so did the rest of us. The England manager knew ‘some of the batting order’, as he once put it.

Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford. In Southgate’s eyes, they were all inside. That was to be the backbone of the summer of 2021.

England manager Gareth Southgate will likely be heavily dependent on the youth at Euro 2020

England manager Gareth Southgate will likely be heavily dependent on the youth at Euro 2020

With key stars struggling, England could put confidence in Chelsea's Mason Mount

With key stars struggling, England could put confidence in Chelsea's Mason Mount

With key stars struggling, England could put confidence in Chelsea’s Mason Mount

But things can change quickly in football and for Southgate and his England team it has come in a hurry.

Maguire and Henderson have just finished the domestic season with injuries. It was sobering to hear Southgate tell on Tuesday that he might also not have been included had he been limited by UEFA rules to a more well-known squad of 23.

Sterling and Rashford, meanwhile, have little form in fitness. Their reputation remains intact thanks to previous service, but based on recent performances alone, neither man can come close to Southgate’s team for England’s opening game in Group D against Croatia at Wembley in 10 days.

Jack Grealish could play a big role for England

Jack Grealish could play a big role for England

Phil Foden is another talented prospect who can make an impact

Phil Foden is another talented prospect who can make an impact

People like Jack Grealish (left) and Phil Foden (right) could also be important to England

Southgate praised 17-year-old midfielder Jude Bellingham's leadership skills

Southgate praised 17-year-old midfielder Jude Bellingham's leadership skills

Southgate praised 17-year-old midfielder Jude Bellingham’s leadership skills

So if England are really going to do well winning this tournament, it looks like they will be taken over there, at least in part, by younger, less experienced players.

That is exciting and scary at the same time. It’s hard not to think positively about a team from England that could feature new young talent such as Mason Mount, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham.

Likewise, it’s not unimportant that Foden, Grealish and Bellingham only have 13 caps between them, while the cover for Maguire at the heart of the defense consists largely of Tyrone Mings (eight caps) and Conor Coady (four).

On Tuesday, Southgate spoke from Teesside ahead of Wednesday night’s friendly against Austria, his younger players speaking and it’s no wonder. Chances are he needs them.

Raheem Sterling has had some tough moments this season

Raheem Sterling has had some tough moments this season

Marcus Rashford also struggled for form at times

Marcus Rashford also struggled for form at times

Raheem Sterling (left) and Marcus Rashford (right) have had some hard times this season

“Teams are constantly evolving and forming changes,” says Southgate. “We used to go to tournaments and worry about maybe one or two major injuries. But we feel like we have some depth, which is important. We don’t flap.

“We would like to have everyone available and fit, but we have what we have and we are happy. If we get the other guys back, that’s a bonus for us. You have to find ways to win with the hand you have.

“We do have some depth because we’ve had young players bleed early and some of those young players now have 10 caps or more.

“So there is an excitement for us to work with this group of players. They’re not at their peak, I’ve said that before.

“But the level of training this week, even with 10 players who didn’t make it to the European finals with us, was really high, so very exciting.

“I mean someone like Jude. Relief! He is phenomenal. It’s so exciting to have a 17 year old who wants to compete with older players who not only has the techniques but also the competitiveness and maturity.

“He’s going to be an important player for England and we’re not just taking him to this player for the experience.”

Harry Maguire fights to be fit for the start of Euro 2020

Harry Maguire fights to be fit for the start of Euro 2020

Jordan Henderson also wants to prove his fitness

Jordan Henderson also wants to prove his fitness

Harry Maguire (left) and Jordan Henderson (right) battle to be fit for the start of the tournament

Southgate confirmed that Maguire and Henderson would struggle to make the opening game of the tournament, but were anything but optimistic.

Without either one against Croatia wouldn’t be as seismic as it used to be when the nation waited for news of injuries from the likes of David Beckham and Wayne Rooney with the kind of anticipation normally reserved for the birth of a royal baby.

But the pair is important nonetheless. They have 90 caps in between. Both played in the semifinals of the World Cup in Moscow three summers ago. They will be difficult to replace.

In terms of things further down the field, it will all depend on Southgate’s judgment and the trust he really thinks he can place in the likes of Foden, Mount and Grealish.

Mount will definitely play in game one. He was exceptional in Chelsea’s Champions League win in Portugal last weekend and has been all season. But whether the England manager really has the nerve to remove Sterling and/or Rashford from his line-up at this late stage is harder to predict. What is undeniable is that both are short in shape.

“We are here to play nine games and we know we already have some doubts about injuries in the group,” said Southgate.

“We’re going to have other issues in the next five weeks, so we need adaptability, we need good players, we need good professionals, tactically savvy players and we’re lucky to have old and young players who are in all those categories fit.

“I’m watching Jude, Declan, Mason Mount this morning. They are future captains for whatever teams they play for. They have leadership qualities in themselves.’

Declan Rice, who has impressed for West Ham, was another to receive praise from Southgate

Declan Rice, who has impressed for West Ham, was another to receive praise from Southgate

Declan Rice, who has impressed for West Ham, was another to receive praise from Southgate

With Mason Greenwood withdrawing from the squad with an injury, Southgate had few headaches before having to name a squad that dropped at 5pm. It seemed a bit odd to leave out a player of known character and experience such as Jesse Lingard and include another young striker, Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka. Perhaps Saka’s versatility will bring him in.

Other than that, there was little to quibble or worry about.

Southgate is publicly insisting that England can win this tournament. There’s nothing wrong with positivity, but still, that seems like a stretch. In key areas, England is starting to look just a little too green.

Nevertheless, this is an English squad designed to play on the front foot and there’s a lot to like about that.

Whoever picks Southgate when their players meet at Wembley for a week on Sunday, none of them will be afraid to have the ball. A personal concern is what could happen if England doesn’t have it.

But the other big countries will look at Southgate’s squad with respect. England can expect to be contenders for this title.

.