‘Big Six’ becoming a ‘Big Four’ and that is great for Gareth Southgate’s England

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 (The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)

Harry Kane spent the summer telling his England team-mates he planned to leave Tottenham after the European Championship, and he hoped to be a Manchester City player by the time he next set foot in St. George’s Park.

Instead, Kane will be reminded of what might have been when he spearheads an attack with Raheem Sterling and possibly Jack Grealish in tonight’s World Cup qualifier against Hungary here in Budapest.

Unlike Kane, Grealish got his nine-figure summer move to City, and the England captain is soon likely to be among a minority of the national squad who are not competing to be champions of England and/or Europe.

Spurs may be top of the fledgling Premier League table but the Manchester clubs and Chelsea are gearing up for sustained challenges on two fronts after extravagant summers of spending, while Liverpool look ready to complete again following the return of injured players.

During the Euros, just 11 of England’s 26 came from the ‘Big Four’ (the so-called ‘Big Six’ is in danger of shrinking if Spurs and Arsenal do not make sustained improvements) but Grealish’s move, Jadon Sancho’s return to Manchester with United and recalls for Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and Jesse Lingard, who decided to stay at Old Trafford, mean half of Southgate’s 24-man squad are from the quartet.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

The balance will surely shift even further assuming Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell, United pair Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford, City’s Phil Foden and perhaps Liverpool’s Joe Gomez return to future squads – leaving England soon set to be largely made up of players from the League’s four strongest clubs, just as with the last ‘Golden Generation’.

For Southgate, this reconfiguration should be a net positive. He has frequently spoken about his desire for more “winners” at club level to propel England over the line when it matters, and having four English clubs among a shrinking European elite will only help that cause.

Fiercer competition at the top should raise standards and push his players to even greater heights, particularly after Liverpool and then City strolled to the past two championships.

It already felt possible to detect a new edge in Liverpool and Chelsea’s draw last Saturday, hinting at a return to a three- or four-way struggle at the top.

The prospect of Grealish learning from Pep Guardiola and becoming a more disciplined and devastating player has already been widely discussed, while playing with Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford could take Greenwood, Rashford and Sancho to new levels.

Similarly, Harry Maguire should benefit from playing alongside a pedigreed partner in Raphael Varane, in the same way that John Stones did from partnering Ruben Dias at City, while Romelu Lukaku’s return to Chelsea should improve Mason Mount’s game.

 (The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)

The situation is not without potential downsides for England, however, not least because competition for places at club level could leave some of Southgate’s regulars short of minutes (although during the Euros, Sterling benefitted from being rotated at City).

And for all the talk about the end of divisive cliques in the national team, more competition at the top could increase tensions in the camp. Sterling clashed with Gomez at St. George’s Park shortly after Liverpool beat City in November 2019, illustrating the potential fallout when club rivalries become all-consuming.

Maintaining the harmony within the squad could be a challenge for Southgate going forward, and is particularly important given the Qatar World Cup will fall in the midst of a title race, with the tournament beginning midway through next season in November 2022.

Southgate is not interested in discussing Qatar until his side have qualified, with England currently topping Group I with three wins from three before the Euros.

On paper, tonight’s match at a full-capacity Puskas Arena is the toughest of England’s group and promises to present a real test of Southgate’s European Championship runners-up.

After a summer spent largely enjoying home comforts, England must adapt to a bouncing and hostile home crowd and show no hangover from their defeat by Italy on penalties on July 11.

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