England’s win against Wales was fun to watch but having Belgium’s superstars at Wembley on Sunday is a big step-up and I’m fascinated to see how Gareth Southgate juggles his pack.
Loyalty is important to the England manager and you can see how he has fostered real team spirit in the squad — one of the reasons we did so well at the last World Cup.
He’s had to make disciplinary decisions regarding Harry Maguire, Raheem Sterling, Mason Greenwood, Phil Foden, Tammy Abraham, Jadon Sancho and Ben Chilwell in the past year but those players also realise if they respond in the right way, the manager won’t carry on punishing them for the sake of it.
England’s win over Wales was fun to watch but Gareth Southgate is expected to make changes
A brief loss of form on the pitch will also be tolerated but won’t be overlooked for ever.
He stuck by Joe Hart for England’s qualifiers until a lack of game time became an issue and he was dropped for the World Cup. Since then, 2018 heroes Dele Alli, John Stones and Jesse Lingard have all found themselves out of the squad.
Now others will be looking over their shoulders, aware their form has to improve if they are to play at the European Championship, no matter how big their reputations.
The England boss has quality at his disposal and his stars will have to perform to standard
I’m sure Maguire will start against Belgium but he can’t continue with the uncertain performances he’s shown for Manchester United this season. Likewise, Jordan Pickford will be aware of what happened to Hart. Southgate will prefer to stick by him but there will be a cut-off point if his form does not improve.
Joe Gomez will see the competition from Tyrone Mings, Conor Coady, James Tarkowski and Eric Dier and know he can’t take anything for granted after his own rough spell of form. Even Marcus Rashford has to be aware of the threat posed by Jack Grealish on the left side if he and United continue to stutter for the rest of the season.
As for Greenwood, Foden, Sancho, Abraham and Chilwell, they will have viewed England’s game last Thursday realising that Southgate has a lot of strength in depth in his squad. Most players, if they are honest, don’t want rivals in their position to have great games and they know Gareth will make tough calls if he has to.
GREALISH v RASHFORD
I’ve championed Grealish for a long time but the reality is he’s competing with Rashford for one place along the forward line.
Despite the Villa midfielder’s excellent performance and assist against Wales, I think the position is Rashford’s to lose at the moment. Throwing him in against Belgium would be a massive, and surprising, call from Southgate but nonetheless the competition is healthy for Rashford. It will push him.
Jack Grealish showed what he can do in an England shirt with a great display against Wales
But Marcus Rashford should keep his place on the left of the front three for the Belgium game
Both men have end product, create and score goals, and can go past defenders. They are both best from the left-hand side. Though they can switch to the right — as we saw with Grealish’s cross for Dominic Calvert-Lewin on Thursday — that is Sterling’s spot, with Sancho next in line.
Jack will wander more than Marcus and be a free spirit. He can manipulate the ball in deeper areas. But in a 3-4-3, Rashford holds his position and gives the side more speed on the counter.
The key question for Southgate was whether to exclude the three ‘party boys’ Abraham, Sancho and Chilwell from his current squad.
He sent home Foden and Greenwood from Iceland, although their indiscretions differed by occurring on England duty.
With Raheem Sterling missing through injury, Jadon Sancho has to play on the right on Sunday
You could argue the punishment should have been the same for both sets of offenders, despite the nuances, but now Southgate has allowed Sancho to train for the Belgium game, I think he should start. There is no point in not sending him home and leaving him on the bench as a mini-punishment.
Belgium are the No1-ranked team in the world so England have to pick the strongest team possible and, with Sterling injured, Sancho is the best available because he has the talent and ability to impact games.
IMPORTANCE OF SYSTEMS
You always need two different formations in a major tournament and you have to work hard on both so that if you have to change between games, or even during them, the players instinctively know what they are doing.
The 3-4-3 Southgate operated against Wales suits the current squad, particularly against teams such as Belgium.
England’s likely full-backs at Euro 2020, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Chilwell, are excellent at getting forward and having an extra central defender gives them licence to do so.
Southgate’s use of different systems may come in handy for the Euros next summer
They can then provide natural width in the attacking third to allow the likes of Sterling, Rashford and Sancho to get closer to Harry Kane. They each are a goal threat and need to be in and around the penalty area during a match. England are also blessed with central midfielders Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson, who are athletic enough to do the jobs sometimes given to a midfield three.
I also think 4-3-3 is a good system for England against weaker opposition, maybe in the group stages where they will dominate the ball. You can sacrifice a central defender and allow the full-backs to push on.
THE WILDCARD TO BE RELIED ON
There has been a bizarre imbalance between English right-backs and left-backs in recent times. On the right we are spoilt for choice with Alexander-Arnold, Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and Reece James. Aaron Wan-Bissaka can’t even get near the team.
On the left, when Chilwell is missing, we struggle, with Luke Shaw and Danny Rose out of favour. I like Bukayo Saka but he’s not an Arsenal regular and it’s hard to think where the 19-year-old would have got a start against Wales except at left-back.
England have options at right back but Ainsley Maitland-Niles could be the man down the left
With Chilwell unlikely to be available, I expect Southgate to ask Trippier to switch from the right but that’s ridiculous, in my opinion.
If you told me Ainsley Maitland-Niles would have to play left-back or wing-back in the Euro 2020 final, it wouldn’t worry me because I saw his performances at the end of last season. He kept Mo Salah quiet and helped Arsenal beat Manchester City and then Chelsea to win the FA Cup at Wembley.
He’s a player for the big occasion: cool on the ball and doesn’t mind using his left foot higher up the pitch. He defends better one-on-one than people give him credit for. So England’s left-sided problem is not as serious as we once thought.
Danny was speaking to Joe Bernstein