Alexander-Arnold can be special in England’s midfield, insists Southgate

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Trent Alexander-Arnold;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Trent Alexander-Arnold</a> (centre) in training with <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:England;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">England</a> before their opening Euro 2024 fixture against <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Serbia;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Serbia</a>. </span><span>Photograph: Adam Davy/PA</span>

A sense of calm has fallen over the England camp. After a week in the luxurious surroundings of their secluded retreat in Blankenhain, there is a quiet confidence about this talented side’s chances of glory at Euro 2024.

“I don’t think there is any question that there is strong belief in the group,” Gareth Southgate said before England face Serbia in their opening match in Group C on Sunday night. “We are very happy with the way we have prepared.”

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The intensity has grown. The shock of the friendly defeat by Iceland has faded and players who had knocks at the end of the club season have been working hard in Germany. Southgate, who on Friday night spoke to his squad about learning lessons from previous tournaments, is ready for a period likely to define his time in charge of England.

Naturally, the tone was measured from the head coach as he discussed a “dangerous” Serbia and dismissed concerns that he is shoving square pegs in round holes by starting the right-footed Kieran Trippier at left-back and Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield.

What of Wayne Rooney’s insistence that Alexander-Arnold lacks the defensive skills to play in the middle? “Everybody’s more than entitled to opinions,” Southgate said. “I spoke to Trent about playing in this role over a year ago. It’s not something he’s been doing for the last five years. There is an element of the unknown. But I think it’s an opportunity that’s worth grasping because he could be incredibly special.”

It was an answer typical of Southgate’s wider mood. Forget triumphalism and embrace the nuance. Yes, Southgate said, England can win – but so can other teams. There was no “golden generation” talk, even though England’s opponents will fear Harry Kane, Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham.


“When you watch European football and the other leagues you are aware of how many good players there are,” Southgate said. “What we have done until this point doesn’t really matter. It gives us confidence that we can play well but we have to deliver from tomorrow.”

There were times when it was almost as if Southgate was delivering a team talk to the country: be excited, but don’t get carried away.

England have arrived in Gelsenkirchen with doubts. Southgate, who has said his time will be up if he cannot deliver the trophy, has had to make compromises. Some decisions have been ruthless – ask James Maddison, Jordan Henderson, Kalvin Phillips, Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish – but others are enforced. Harry Maguire, absent with a calf injury, could be a big miss in central defence.

Maguire was one of the team’s leaders. The inexperienced Marc Guéhi will have big shoes to fill when he partners John Stones, who says he is fully fit after recovering from a bug and foot injury. Luke Shaw, the squad’s only left-back, could be on the bench after recovering from a lengthy hamstring injury.

There is a new look to England, who have omitted half the 26-man squad that went to the 2022 World Cup. Cole Palmer, Eberechi Eze, Adam Wharton, Anthony Gordon, Jarrod Bowen and Kobbie Mainoo are ­fearless but raw.

“We have players who have been through some big nights together and others who have an energy and an excitement about them in their first tournament,” Southgate said. “I don’t think it is essential that you have experience throughout.

“Innocence is a bonus. When I went into Euro 96, despite the end I had a good tournament, and I only went in with three or four caps. There is opportunity for people to make a name for themselves.”

Southgate backed Foden, who is yet to bring his club form to the international stage, and Bellingham to thrive in attacking midfield. Praise for Germany’s performance against Scotland was accompanied by a warning that things could get tougher for the hosts. “Not every game for Germany is going to be like that and not every team that has won tournaments has started in that fashion,” Southgate said. “It is about making sure we are resilient to whatever issues are thrown up in the tournament.”

This could be England’s time. They have gone close under Southgate, never more so than when they lost on penalties to Italy in the Euro 2020 final. They have come a long way since being outwitted by Croatia in the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup. They scared France in Qatar. Southgate is ready to take the next step.