Euro 2024 contenders are all flawed – and that will add to the spectacle

<span><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> lost their final Euro 2024 warm-up friendly 1-0 to Iceland. </span><span>Composite: Guardian Picture Desk</span>

As boos echoed round an increasingly empty Wembley on Friday, the pitch dotted with paper planes, the mind drifted back to a similar occasion eight years ago and another friendly played in preparation for the European Championship. That time the opposition were Portugal and then too there were boos, despite Chris Smalling heading the winner from a Raheem Sterling cross with four minutes remaining. A little over a month later, England were grimly looking to a fresh start under Sam Allardyce, having been eliminated by Iceland in their first game after the Brexit vote, and Portugal were European champions.

It’s true that Portugal had had Bruno Alves sent off 10 minutes before half-time in that friendly; somebody desperate, post hoc, to trace cause and effect may conclude that in their resistance there were clues to Portugal’s ultimate dogged triumph. And certainly there was plenty of evidence for how lacking in fluency England would be in the weeks that followed. But it’s even truer to say that pre-season friendlies are quickly forgotten.

Nobody should get too carried away by the fact that England lost their final friendly before this summer’s Euros 1-0 to Iceland, that France drew 0-0 with Canada, that Germany needed a last-minute goal to scrape a win against Greece or that Portugal were beaten 2-1 at home by Croatia. But neither can final warm-up games be entirely ignored. England’s performance against Iceland highlighted a number of doubts about the squad. There has rarely been such a sense of stability about an England team heading in to a tournament; nobody doubts they will play a 4-2-3-1, and seven or possibility eight of the starters are obvious. But Harry Maguire’s injury leaves them lacking a commanding presence in the air and the problems in midfield and on the left are significant.

Related: Euro 2024: complete guide to all 622 players

What Friday perhaps confirmed was that there is need for a dynamic and aggressive presence alongside Declan Rice in midfield. Far more than the lack of attacking fluency, the openness that led to Iceland’s goal and could have led to a couple more was a concern. That probably means Conor Gallagher coming in to replace Kobbie Mainoo. Jude Bellingham will return to the central creative role, which probably means Phil Foden on the left.

But that creates a problem because Foden naturally drifts infield and so balance demands a full-back who can go outside him. Luke Shaw is the only left-footed defender in the squad but he has not played since damaging a hamstring in February. He will not be fit until England’s second game, against Denmark, at the earliest and the fact that Gareth Southgate has felt the need to include him suggests the dearth of alternatives. Kieran Trippier will probably deputise in the opener, against Serbia, meaning England will have very little attacking width on the left.

Southgate is a meticulous planner: Shaw feels like a gamble that has been forced upon him, while the uncertainty in midfield, the failure to find a replacement for Kalvin Phillips or Jordan Henderson is uncharacteristic. The mood last Friday, the sense of hoping things come together, felt very old England, very much of the pre-Southgate era. Yet it’s also true that, as Portugal showed in 2016, sometimes things do just fall into place; even the best sides – Spain at the 2010 World Cup, Germany in 2014, Argentina in 2022 – sometimes need to grow together.

And it’s not as though any side enters the tournament in impressive form. Italy, the defending champions, were comfortably beaten twice by England in qualifying and, while they may be improving under Luciano Spalletti, they have been insipid in drawing 0-0 with Turkey and beating Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-0 in the past week.

Germany, the hosts, had a dismal 2023, culminating in the 4-1 defeat to Japan that led to Hansi Flick becoming the first Germany coach ever to be sacked. There has been an improvement under Julian Nagelsmann with the return of Toni Kroos alongside Robert Andrich at the back of midfield a major factor but, after victories over the Netherlands and France in March, a 0-0 against Ukraine and a sluggish 2-1 win over Greece have dampened expectations.

Related: Euro 2024: a complete visual and audio guide to the stadiums

France have the best squad at the tournament, but the re-selection of N’Golo Kanté suggests how concerned Didier Deschamps was by the lack of balance in midfield in March’s defeat to Germany. Kylian Mbappé represents a conundrum, on the one hand a supremely gifted finisher, but on the other somebody who on occasion fails to get involved: in the semi-final and final of the World Cup in Qatar, he had to be shifted from his favoured left-sided berth into the middle because he was doing too little to track the forward runs of the opposing full-back.

Portugal have a similar problem with Cristiano Ronaldo, who is not what he once was but continues to be selected as Roberto Martínez juggles a hugely gifted squad around him. Spain have a fine midfield but an unconvincing forward line with Álvaro Morata at its heart. The Netherlands have a solid and experienced rearguard and plenty of willing runners but, unusually, a midfield lacking real class, while Belgium’s post-Golden Generation side remains reliant for goals on the ageing duo of Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, with the use of Jérémy Doku as a left wing-back an intriguing of not entirely convincing experiment.

But that’s the beauty of international football. Nobody is perfect. Nobody can just go out and buy a balanced squad, while the lack of time available means systems are far less sophisticated than at club level. If anything, the flaws add to the spectacle. The worry for England is that theirs are slightly too big and have emerged at just the wrong time.

  • This is an extract from Soccer with Jonathan Wilson, a weekly look from the Guardian US at the game in Europe and beyond. Subscribe for free here. Have a question for Jonathan? Email, and he’ll answer the best in a future edition