This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 11 June.
Although the hype around England has ended up looking ridiculous in previous years, the optimism feels justified this time. There is no need to adopt an inferiority complex. It is not entitled to point out that Gareth Southgate’s side are capable of ending the talk of 1966 and all that.
This is not the usual English arrogance before a major tournament. There is no denying that England, who swept through qualifying, are one of the main contenders. They boast a fearsome attack and have progressed since reaching the World Cup semi-finals in 2018, adding depth to the squad with the introduction of some excellent youngsters.
It is exciting to imagine technically gifted players such as Mason Mount and Phil Foden linking behind the captain, Harry Kane. Jack Grealish is another who offers unpredictability and it is tempting to assume that the main question for Southgate is how best to assemble his attack. Raheem Sterling cannot be discounted despite his indifferent form for Manchester City and, although Marcus Rashford has struggled with injuries this season, the Manchester United forward remains a key player.
Yet caveats still apply. For all the excitement about the attack, doubts persist elsewhere. Jordan Pickford can be erratic in goal. The defence is a concern. Harry Maguire is an injury worry and although the rehabilitation of John Stones is welcome, the Manchester City centre-back’s mistake against Poland in March demonstrated that he has not completely cut out the errors from his game.
The worry for Southgate is that England will stumble against stronger opposition. It is why he has used a back three at times. Although he has been criticised for his conservatism, Southgate is conscious of the need to defend properly and will not throw caution to the wind if he does use a 4-3-3 system. Do not expect to see England line up with Declan Rice holding everything together on his own in defensive midfield. It is likely to be a double pivot with another player protecting the back four, though Kalvin Phillips and Jordan Henderson are injury concerns.
“We have to find a balance,” Southgate says. That is the challenge awaiting the manager. England must be tactically astute against the better teams, but also need to play with the right tempo, show no fear and be adventurous. Southgate does not want to be accused of holding this side back.
M&S reported that sales of waistcoats rocketed by 35% during the 2018 World Cup, when Gareth Southgate’s preference for traditional formal wear turned him into an unlikely fashion icon. His fondness for fielding two holding midfielders shows he is scarcely more adventurous tactically than he is sartorially, but he is a sensible and serious custodian for a fine generation of English talent, and comes into the tournament with one of the best win percentages of any England manager.
Over the last year Marcus Rashford, once just an unusually talented footballer, has morphed into a figure of genuine national importance, repeatedly beating the British government in a one-on-one, scoring an MBE and transforming into hot commercial property. He has joined Jay-Z’s Roc Nation talent agency, launched a charitable partnership with Burberry and co-hosted an online cookery programme with Michelin-starred chef Tom Kerridge. Oh, and he has started a book club for disadvantaged children and written a book himself, called You Are a Champion.
Thankful for a year’s delay
A year ago, Jude Bellingham was a promising kid with a few Championship appearances to his name. A move to Borussia Dortmund, outstanding performances in the Champions League and injuries to other midfielders made his inclusion inevitable. “I couldn’t be more impressed with him as a human being” is Southgate’s verdict so far. If England win their group, they will play their last-16 match at Wembley on Bellingham’s 18th birthday.
What the fans sing
For as long as there are Three Lions on England’s shirt, the Euro 1996 anthem will ring across the terraces. The “30 years of hurt” now stretch to 55, which is both depressing and much harder to squeeze into the song. Performed by Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds, the lyrics include these lines: “Everyone seems to know the score, they’ve seen it all before, they just know, they’re so sure that England’s gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away, but I know they can play, ’cause I remember …”
What the fans say
“Can we not knock it?” – Esoteric remix of “stick it in the mixer”, coined by Graham Taylor and occasionally repeated with heavy irony.
“Oh God, not another penalty shootout” – As at the World Cup, England have won one of four shootouts at European Championships. Both of their successes involved Gareth Southgate in a non-taking role.
“Are we going to prepare for this Euros like we did for Euro 96?” – Back then, Terry Venables took his tournament hosts on a tour of Hong Kong and China that ended with the infamous “dentist’s chair” drinking sessions.
Many footballers have done admirable work in their communities, but there are exceptions and many of them seem to play for England. Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden were booted off an international trip after an illicit and quarantine-busting liaison with a pair of Icelandic cousins, while Kyle Walker hosted a party the day before posting “everyone stay home” on social media. Jack Grealish filmed a video reminding fans that “to help save lives you must stay at home” before leaving home, going to a party and driving his Range Rover into some parked cars while wearing mismatched shoes.
Jacob Steinberg and Simon Burnton write for the Guardian.
For a player profile on John Stones click here.