England’s 2-0 win over Germany was 90 minutes of vindication for Gareth Southgate. The 50-year-old’s switch to a back three meant there was little room for flair and invention, something the Three Lions aren’t lacking through the likes of Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Mason Mount, who all started the Euro 2020 last 16 tie on the bench.
In Southgate’s own words, he would have been “dead” had England tumbled out of the tournament without ever taking the game to Germany. They didn’t, though, and Southgate was offered praise from all quarters. For the first time at Euro 2020, there was widespread acceptance of his vision for the team.
That acceptance won’t last if Southgate gets it wrong against Ukraine on Saturday. The task facing England in Rome will be a very different one to the one posed by Germany in the previous round. There is no need for Southgate to be so conservative against such a limited opponent.
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Most expect at least one of Foden, Grealish or Mount to come into the lineup, but which of England’s creative trio would be best-suited to Saturday’s quarter-final against Ukraine? All three players are capable of deciding a match with a moment of individual brilliance, so which one will Southgate opt for?
The clamour for Grealish to play from the start has grown throughout the tournament, particularly after the 25-year-old’s cameo off the bench against Germany which saw him involved in both England goals. However, Southgate might find it difficult to fit Grealish into the same team as Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling. One of the latter two would likely have to give way.
There is greater scope for Foden or Mount to be accommodated in midfield. A shift back into a central defensive unit of two would naturally create another place in the middle of the pitch, where Foden or Mount would be supported by the pairing of Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice.
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Southgate might be wary to start Foden and Mount in the same team such was the ponderous nature of England’s play when he did that for the opening two Group D fixtures against Croatia and Scotland. Someone like Saka, who can stretch the pitch and provide some unpredictability, has real value to balance things out.
The right balance might have been struck in the win over Czech Republic, when Saka and Sterling flanked Harry Kane while Grealish operated in front of Phillips and Rice. Kieran Trippier could start over Kyle Walker at right back, but it’s entirely possible Southgate will recycle this XI against Ukraine. There would be some logic to this.
While Foden, Grealish and Mount are all worthy of being key figures for England, Southgate will always struggle to squeeze them into the same team. Even with Grealish deployed on the left wing, where Southgate tends to use him, a system with Foden and Mount as central midfield creators would sacrifice either width or security in the middle.
In all four games England have played at Euro 2020 so far, Southgate has combated the strengths of the opponents they have faced. He will do similar against Ukraine, who will most likely set up in a back three with wing backs. It’s therefore not completely out of the question that Southgate could match up with a back three of his own, just as he did against Germany.
This would open up the possibility of Foden, Grealish and Mount all starting on the bench once again. For many, this would be a waste, but Southgate will have to make concessions in order to accommodate even one of them. The question is - where can he afford to make those concessions?
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