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Ken Early: Southgate’s toughest task will be harnessing England's attacking talent

All the tournament-winning sides of recent years have had a clearly defined structure and identity

Of all the football trends nobody saw coming, the most significant for Euro 2020 must be the emergence of England, a nation of 56 million people which until recently was struggling to produce one competent left-footed player per generation, as Europe's premier talent volcano.

New English talent is coming through the ranks so fast it's hard to keep up. 13 of the 23 players who went to the 2018 World Cup have already been phased out. It feels like it was only five minutes ago that Dele Alli was the player of the future, and now he's yesterday's man, rendered obsolete at 25 by a new generation of players born in the 21st century - Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham. The resulting squad, notoriously adorned with a couple of jewels plundered from the Irish youth teams, is the second-youngest in the tournament, yet it is also loaded with top-level experience: half the players have competed in a European club final in the last two years. values England at a collective €1.25 billion euros, almost 25 per cent more than their nearest rival, France.

It’s an intoxicating prospect for a people who yield to no other in their love of the ecstatic abandon of a summer tournament joyride. Remember the “it’s coming home” euphoria of England’s run to the 2018 World Cup semis - the naked crowdsurfing, the climbing up and falling off of tall structures, the geysers of beer going up after a goal like a hundred whales spouting at once?

Imagine how much more excited the crowds will be by a home tournament in the home time zone, and now imagine them electrified by all the pent-up energy of a pandemic year - all the pissed-off locked-down people at long last spilling out, cutting loose, letting rip.


Now imagine how this orgiastic spectacle will be greeted by the considerable minority of the population that is still worried about the pandemic. Imagine the fear and revulsion felt by the anxious towards the carnival in the streets, imagine the seething anger as the carefree mass ignores warnings about rising infections and spreading variants, masklessly bellowing their war chants, filling the air with plumes of aerosolised filth . . . you can already hear the phone-in callers screaming for troops to march in and cleanse the city squares and village greens of the patriot plague.

The pandemic may not even be the biggest cultural fault line. Monday marks a year since the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was dumped into Bristol Harbour. Political protests - BLM, anti-BLM, anti-lockdown, etc - have been the only mass events on the likely scale of the Euros to have taken place over the last year. Can the England team unite these warring tribes? More likely the start of each of their games will remind the tribes of why they hate each other, as the players take a knee against racism and half the crowd boos while the other half tries to drown them out with cheers.

By now JG Ballard would have torn up this story proposal - too confusing, too many dystopic elements. There is only one thing that absolutely everyone in England is agreed on, and that is that England have the players to win it. England are so stacked that they could afford to entertain a farcical debate over whether the phenomenally talented Trent Alexander-Arnold deserved a place in their squad. Of course he eventually made the cut, only to be immediately ruled out of the tournament by a thigh injury sustained in Wednesday’s friendly against Austria.

The saga of Alexander-Arnold reminds you of the pointlessness of pre-tournament prognostication - events, dear boy, events - but it also tells you that Gareth Southgate has a problem: he literally has more good players than he knows what to do with.

By picking four right-backs, Southgate signalled that not only is he still unsure who to pick in defence, he is not even sure what shape he wants that defence to be. A week before the big kick off, England still don’t know if they want to play with a back five or a back four. The shape they adopt seems to depend on how frightened they are of the opposition: more fear equals more defenders. In twelve games since last September they have started with six different formations, including 4-3-3 (beat Albania and Poland, drew with Denmark), 3-4-3 (beat Wales, Belgium and Ireland, lost to Belgium) and 3-5-2 (lost to Denmark, beat Iceland).

Any change to the shape of the defence necessarily means a change to the shape of the attack - whether it be Kane plus one, Kane dropping deep with flyers ahead, Kane leading the line with three attacking midfielders, Kane as the angel on the Christmas tree. And once you decide on a shape comes the really hard part: choosing the personnel. With eight forwards in the squad, there are 21 possible combinations of partners for Kane in a notional England front three, and there is a reasonable argument to be made for most of these combinations.

"It's a good problem to have!" is the stock comment on this sort of situation - but the brilliance of the attacking options heaps pressure on Southgate. It is almost impossible for the actual performances of the players he picks to live up to the imagined performances of the players he leaves out. Raheem Sterling is England's most-capped player, but when has he ever delivered the string of 10-star performances we know we'll get from Imaginary Jack Grealish? Marcus Rashford has had some big nights for England, but how can he or anyone else seriously expect to compete with the genius of Hypothetical Jadon Sancho?

If anything, Southgate seems to be trying to make a virtue of tactical flexibility - traditionally an English weakness

Even assuming that Southgate can disregard the roars of public approval or disapproval and make up his mind dispassionately, the decisions hardly get easier. Sterling and Rashford have featured most often with Kane over the last two years, but neither goes into this tournament in good form. Does Southgate owe them loyalty and faith, or does he turn instead to the likes of Grealish or Phil Foden, who seem fresher but who have hardly played for England?

The English potential has not yet crystallised into a definite form. All the tournament-winning sides of recent years have had a clearly defined structure and identity. Spain came to Euro 2008 with the most talented squad, but it was the Xavi-inspired style of play that set them apart and ultimately carried them to further victories in 2010 and 2012. The German team that won the 2014 World Cup had spent years perfecting their 4-2-3-1. Portugal in 2016 played 4-4-2 with minor variations throughout the tournament. France in 2018 were absolutely committed to 4-2-3-1, with Didier Deschamps ignoring complaints that the system did not get the best out of his creative players.

He believed that the benefits of order and clarity outweighed the potential gains of experimentation. All the players in these winning sides had a clear picture of the team system in their heads, and understood how they would serve it when called upon.

England don't have this clarity. If anything, Southgate seems to be trying to make a virtue of tactical flexibility - traditionally an English weakness. In so far as he has defined a structure, it's based on the influence of certain key players, rather than a system of play. You could call it the H-plan - he's hung his hat on Harry Kane, Harry Maguire, and Jordan Henderson. These players are the steel girders from which everything else hangs, those broad upright Hs evoking the strong stable struts of a mighty suspension bridge.

The bad news is that with one week to go, two of the three fundamental H-towers are injured. Henderson hasn’t played since February, which is no good for a player whose game is all about physical strength and intensity. Maguire likewise will be short of match fitness even if his injured ankle improves enough to allow him to play.

Southgate knows that including clearly injured stars is one of England's terrible tournament traditions - Wayne Rooney in 2006 and 2010, Michael Owen in 2006 and 2000, David Beckham in 2002, Bryan Robson in 1986, Kevin Keegan in 1982. That he would risk repeating such a familiar mistake reveals his fear that without a H marshalling the lines in defence and midfield, his brilliant young team might disintegrate into a shapeless mess.


Ultimately there is no way to know how the players will react until the pressure comes on, and each of them will get to know the pressure as the tournament mania gets rolling and grows exponentially with each successive game. How must it feel to be the cause of a national fever dream which could with any small mistake lurch horribly into nightmare, recrimination and blame? It’s a bit like riding a tiger: better not slip. At this moment, as they prepare to embark on what could be one of the all-time craziest journeys in sport, the 26 must feel like the chosen ones, the happy few, like astronauts selected to carry the hopes and dreams of their nation to a distant galaxy.

Maybe their mission succeeds, they find that world beyond the stars and their names echo in eternity. Or it all goes horribly wrong, they run into a Mandžuki? or a Sigþórsson or some other obscure space monster, and step from the wreckage of the ship to find themselves on a blasted planet that reminds them of Earth except it is apparently populated only by zombies who seem to want to devour their brains.

Maybe that is the point at which Southgate selflessly steps forward and, with immense dignity, offers up his own brain to be devoured. A mild-mannered bureaucrat at heart, he never asked to be thrust into the role of ringmaster at the insane pandemic hysteria circus. He has only the illusion of control over most of what happens now. From this point, 95 per cent of possible futures end with him being stuffed into a wicker man. But Southgate has been around the game long enough to understand that, ultimately, this is what managers are for: it’s the circle of football life.

If England finish this tournament by enacting another tradition and blaming everything on some unfortunate scapegoat, then Southgate could do one last thing to help his players, by filling the role for the second time.