England’s Euro 2020 wildcards give Gareth Southgate options as he juggles with numbers game

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 (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

By naming a 33-man long list, Gareth Southgate has resolved little ahead of the European Championship. Eric Dier knows his England future looks very bleak, but the big decisions that have hung in the air for much of the season are still hanging.

For a man who reiterated his misgivings about an extended 26-man squad, Southgate is giving himself even more room for manoeuvre before making his final selection next Tuesday.

Jack Grealish will still be sweating over his inclusion, particularly after Southgate raised concerns over the Aston Villa captain’s ability to cope with the intensity of training and matches throughout the tournament.

By contrast, he was glowing in his praise of Phil Foden, so long seen as a direct rival of Grealish but now pushing to be an automatic starter, potentially at the expense of Raheem Sterling or Marcus Rashford.

If Grealish gets in, it will almost certainly be as a wild card, afforded to Southgate by Uefa’s decision to permit expanded squads.

Perhaps the same will apply to Trent Alexander-Arnold, who was left out of the March internationals, but recalled for this provisional list.

Southgate was at pains to explain why taking four right-backs to a major tournament was not excessive, but his argument was not entirely convincing.

True, Kyle Walker and Reece James can operate as a third centre-back in a back three; Alexander-Arnold could, if required, play in midfield. But the fact remains that all three, along with Kieran Trippier, are only in contention because of their performances as right-backs or wing-backs.

Maybe Southgate’s decision will be made for him if either Walker or James break down in Saturday’s Champions League Final — and there is nothing wrong with keeping his options open at this stage.

What will be fascinating is whether Southgate uses the extra slots as a free hit — an opportunity to experiment with someone such as Grealish. Or will he allow caution to take over by naming Jordan Henderson — the vice-captain and positive dressing-room influence — despite the Liverpool midfielder and captain having not played a minute of competitive football since late February.

He has the freedom to include more of his game-changers, like Grealish, without the usual temptation of naming a utility player to cover all eventualities over the course of a tournament.

Will Gareth Southgate opt to keep Jack Grealish in his final Euro 2020 squad?POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Will Gareth Southgate opt to keep Jack Grealish in his final Euro 2020 squad?POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Southgate is in a unique position of being an England manager who can name an unprecedented amount of attacking quality without the concern of imbalance.

In normal circumstances a list of Foden, Grealish, Rashford, Sterling, Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka and Mason Greenwood would have to be trimmed by at least two names, possibly three, particularly if Southgate wants like-for-like cover for Harry Kane in the form of Dominic Calvert-Lewin or Ollie Watkins. Now he has more freedom to indulge his attacking talent.

“Well it’s a good methodology, isn’t it? ‘Let’s pick the best players,’” said Southgate. “We are conscious of that. With the 23, you think more in your head about a utility player that might become even more valuable, so you may take one less here to get another forward in.

“Those sort of decisions are less complicated with more numbers —and that’s one of the reasons I didn’t like it.

“It’s one of the challenges for coaching, picking the 23. It’s not just, ‘Right, we can shove everybody in’. The challenge we have actually comes now, as we have to keep 15 who aren’t on the team sheet happy. And that’s impossible, by the way. The dynamic of the group is something I can’t emphasise enough.

“The disappointment of not getting in has derailed teams in the past. I have seen it with other countries. Our boys got that right in Russia and have got that right over the last couple of years.”

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