Saturday, June 22, 2024

England reporter notebook: Gareth Southgate has concerns over key players ahead of Euro 2024

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England’s squad remains one of the strongest at these European Championships. I don’t see a better midfield or attacking unit in any of England’s opponents right now. They are still favourites to win the trophy – on paper.

But that’s the real worry for England – their status as favourites is based on reputation and previous performances. The reality right now is that Gareth Southgate has a host of significant problems to deal with – most of which are beyond his control.

The home defeat by Iceland cannot be perceived as just a blip. For me, it is a warning and a signal of the wider problems Southgate is trying to address.

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Ron Walker and Rob Dorsett reflect on England’s defeat by Iceland and what it could mean ahead of the Euros

While we still wallow in the woeful Wembley performance, we should remember that England have won only one of their last five internationals. Does that sound like they are heirs to the European throne?

Anthony Gordon called the Iceland shock a “smack on the nose and a wake-up call.” From what I’ve been told, that mirrors the feeling of the rest of the squad, who have been rattled by England’s under-performance of late.

They plan to use this defeat as a motivating factor – a reminder that it will take a lot more effort and hard work to win the Euros.

Gareth Southgate has plenty to consider ahead of England's opening Euro 2024 game against Serbia on Sunday
Gareth Southgate has plenty to consider ahead of England’s opening Euro 2024 game against Serbia on Sunday

Similarly with the manager. Southgate said his players “didn’t show enough character” at Wembley, and that “in a way, it will focus the mind and it shows that any complacency, or thinking that talent alone is going to get us this trophy, won’t be enough.”

But never before have I seen an England squad so poorly prepared for a major tournament. Too many of England’s key players are injured, lacking in game-time or just exhausted.

Harry Kane, Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka, John Stones: Five world-class players on whom England rely so heavily, all of whom go into the tournament with concerns.

England cannot win the Euros without those big players performing at a high level. Let’s look at them each in turn…

Do you agree with Rob Dorsett’s England XI for their opening Euro 2024 game against Serbia on Sunday?

Harry Kane

England’s all-time leading goalscorer missed the last three games of Bayern Munich’s season because of a back problem. It is clear that back injury is still troubling him and that he is a long way away from his usual clinical match fitness.

The England captain has scored a staggering 49 goals for club and country this season but he has also played 52 matches. That’s a heavy workload for a man who turns 31 next month and is nursing a niggling injury.

He hasn’t been able to play a full 90 minutes for five weeks. With all those factors, it is inevitable that he isn’t at his usual sharpness.

That may come with the more he trains and plays – assuming he is able to do so while England protect his tender back.

It may be that Kane will be able to peak in time for the business end of the tournament. He and Southgate will desperately hope that is the case.

Harry Kane
Rob Dorsett believes Harry Kane is still struggling with his fitness after missing the final part of Bayern Munich’s season with injury

Phil Foden

The Premier League’s player of the season hasn’t been able to replicate his outstanding form for Manchester City in an England shirt.

The clamour was for him to be used not on the left wing, but in a central No 10 role. That’s the position he played against Iceland where, after a bright start, he became increasingly isolated and ineffective. England failed to score and lost the game.

The only other time Foden has played in that role for England was in November, when Bellingham was injured. Foden struggled then, too, and England drew 2-2 in North Macedonia.

Foden is a genuine generational talent. He has proved that time and again for City. But I get the clear impression that Southgate and his staff are scratching their heads about why he is so rarely able to replicate that form for England.

Solving that dilemma will be a priority in training this week.

Is England’s recent form a concern ahead of Euro 2024?

Jude Bellingham

Bellingham has had an incredible season and is rightly regarded as one of the finest talents in world football. He won the Kopa Trophy after being voted the best U21 player in world football and he is also UEFA’s young player of the season.

He has won the Champions League, alongside two other domestic trophies. He managed 23 goals and 13 assists in his first season in Spain. Wow.

But the 20-year-old has played 101 matches for club and country in the last two seasons. Southgate knows he is exhausted – that is why he gave him the whole week off before the Euros. But is a week long enough?

Jude Bellingham celebrates an England goal against Belgium
How reliant will England be on Jude Bellingham this summer?

If you bore down into Bellingham’s recent performances, the stats aren’t quite as impressive. He managed 20 goals in his first 29 matches for Madrid but he has only scored three goals in his last 13 matches for his club.

Anyone who has watched him in the last month or so would feel he hasn’t quite been able to impact matches with the dominance he did in the first half of the season. His energy levels have dipped.

Bellingham won’t train with England until the squad is out in Germany. Southgate will be praying that his world-beater is rested and ready to go.

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The Times’ Martin Hardy analyses England’s performance against Iceland and identifies the areas Southgate might need to focus on

Bukayo Saka

England’s golden boy and one of the first names on the team sheet for so many years – but he too is struggling for fitness.

Having missed the final game of Arsenal’s season, he hasn’t been able to take a full part in England training and wasn’t considered fit for the friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina last Monday. He only played 25 minutes against Iceland and struggled to make an impact in that time.

Southgate is confident the winger will be able to step up his training intensity in the coming days but there is a real chance he may not be included in England’s starting XI for the opening Euros game against Serbia.

The form of Cole Palmer for club and country will make it increasingly difficult for Southgate to justify Saka’s inclusion – unless there’s a significant upturn in his levels over the next week.

John Stones

John Stones
John Stones was substituted at half-time during England’s 1-0 loss to Iceland on Friday

The England defence has always been the team’s Achilles heel and now – with a host of injury problems blighting Southgate’s resources – it looks a real concern.

With Harry Maguire not fit enough to be part of the squad, the mantle of senior martial falls to John Stones – who has only started one Premier League game since mid-March.

He desperately needed games to improve his match fitness, only for a wayward Iceland forward to land on his right ankle. He was substituted at half-time – as a precaution, according to the manager – but was seen leaving the stadium with some heavy strapping.

There were doubts after the Iceland game that he would be ready to start against Serbia in Gelsenkirchen but the more recent prognosis, I understand, is better.

If he can’t play, then Marc Guehi will be England’s senior centre-back, with 11 international caps. Alongside him would be Ezri Konsa (who made his debut in March) or Lewis Dunk (who has won six caps since making his debut six years ago).

The key dates for England

All times BST

Monday June 10 – England squad fly to Germany

Sunday June 16 – Serbia vs England, Gelsenkirchen, kick-off 8pm

Thursday June 20 – Denmark vs England, Frankfurt, kick-off 5pm

Tuesday June 25 – England vs Slovenia, kick-off 8pm

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