Gareth Southgate has had to deal with plenty in his three-and-a-half years in charge of the England team.
He has faced the fallout of the Sam Allardyce affair, a Euro 2020 qualifying campaign pockmarked with incidents of racism and, more surprisingly, a canteen altercation between two players — Raheem Sterling and Joe Gomez.
In the middle of all that, Southgate took England to within a hair’s breadth of a World Cup final. How long ago that suddenly seems now.
Gareth Southgate has transformed England in his three-and-a-half years in the manager role
He has a depth of talent not afforded to his predecessors and they are only going to get better
It’s fair to say Southgate’s latest challenge was never on his radar. The 49-year-old is a strategist but some things you cannot plan for and one such matter is the postponement of a major tournament by 12 months.
Like the rest of us right now, Southgate would give anything to know that the European Championship now scheduled for next summer will actually take place.
That would be a sure sign that Europe and the world had placed the coronavirus epidemic behind them. He is a football man, though, and will still be thinking football thoughts. With that in mind, it is hard not to wonder what his team may look like this time next year.
Here is how Ian Ladyman wants England to start the European Championships next year
England would have had a chance of making the latter stages of the tournament this June. Playing their group games at Wembley would have provided something of a comfort blanket.
England remain strong at home where they are now supported by a public who buy their tickets and turn on their televisions with a little more hope and fondness.
Nevertheless, winning the tournament — speculation that had started to crop up in far too many conversations this season — would in all likelihood have proved beyond them.
Southgate’s team has promise but it has holes in it, too. The opposition from the best of Europe would have been a little stronger than many of the teams England defeated during their run to the last four of the World Cup two summers ago.
This is not meant to sound unkind but England largely beat teams they would expect to beat in Russia, then lost to the first good one they faced — Croatia. They’ll have a tougher schedule in the Euros.
So maybe the next 12 months or so present Southgate with opportunity, whether he would have wished for it or not.
His team, his squad, is a young one. His oldest player is Jordan Henderson and he is only 29. So he will not lose players to the passing of time over the next 12 months. Conversely he should see many of them improve and mature.
Young players like Jadon Sancho will get another year’s experience ahead of the Euros in 2021
James Maddison (left) and Phil Foden (right) are two players who could benefit the most
REASONS FOR ENGLAND TO BE CHEERFUL IN 2021
KANE AND RASHFORD BACK
The delay to the competition will give strikers Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford time to return from injury.
MOST ENGLAND GOALS SINCE 2018 WORLD CUP
Harry Kane – 13
Raheem Sterling – 10
Marcus Rashford – 7
TIME FOR STERLING TO FIND FORM
Raheem Sterling has been one of England’s key men but has struggled with form over the second half of the season.
The core of the England line-up should not change much. The ‘three or four’ certain starters who Southgate reveals to have in his mind will, in all likelihood, remain Henderson, Harry Maguire, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane.
It will be interesting to see how Kane fares during his first full season under the increasingly erratic Jose Mourinho at Spurs, but whatever happens it would be extra-ordinary if one of the most gifted centre forwards in the world suddenly forgot how to score goals.
Outside that quartet, opportunity knocks. England need a reliable goalkeeper, that much is certain. Hopefully that will be an improved Jordan Pickford. The Everton keeper has vast natural talent but suffers from lapses in concentration. He is also too emotional and must rid himself of the strange notion that people want him to fail. They don’t.
His place will come under threat from Burnley’s Nick Pope, Aston Villa’s Tom Heaton and, perhaps most seriously, Sheffield United’s Manchester United loanee Dean Henderson. Pickford has the shirt, though, so it really is up to him.
A season free of injury should accelerate Liverpool’s Gomez toward genuine world-class status and secure his place alongside Maguire at the centre of the defence. Either side, it would be a surprise if anybody usurps Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ben Chilwell, although Luke Shaw’s return to form at Manchester United has been interesting.
But it is in attacking positions that the field may broaden over the course of whatever eventually passes for the next domestic season. Expect further progress from Leicester duo James Maddison and Harvey Barnes, and Phil Foden now has the extra year he needs to make an impression. Southgate loves him but this summer would have come too soon for the Manchester City player.
Mason Greenwood at United is just a teenager but looks a natural goalscorer and we do not have many of those. He should aim high next season and Chelsea pair Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount, along with Dominic Calvert-Lewin of Everton, will sink or swim when their club managers inevitably bring in competition for their places from abroad during the summer.
And what of Jack Grealish? If ever a player has performed so well in a struggling Premier League team as the Aston Villa midfielder then I struggle to recall it.
Watching him and Maddison trying to drag their teams to victory in January’s Carabao Cup semi-final at Villa Park was uplifting.
A move to a bigger club seems like the natural next step for the 24-year-old Grealish. If he stays fit and does not make it into Southgate’s squad for the first time over the coming year, something will have gone very wrong indeed.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin is excelling at Everton and will believe he can make the squad in 2021
Southgate will have decisions to make with only four players deemed to be certain starters
Who would have thought that the two years following the World Cup would have been so unkind to players like Dele Alli, Eric Dier and Jesse Lingard? Their lack of form in recent times has been unfathomable. Personally I have not yet lost faith in Alli. At his best, he still makes my starting XI.
Undoubtedly, one or more of Southgate’s players will suffer similarly as we emerge from the darkness of this wretched health crisis and into the light of another football season.
But, unlike many who passed before him, Southgate has a depth of talent at his disposal. We haven’t even discussed here the improvement in Marcus Rashford or the burgeoning talent of Jadon Sancho. There are others threatening to push through from the levels beneath.
The holes in Southgate’s squad mentioned earlier may well be patched over time. As such, I will be disappointed if he doesn’t arrive on the threshold of next summer’s European Championship with his team priced at shorter odds than they are right now.
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