Debating the England squad: Who’s lucky to be there? Who could make it to the Euros? – The Athletic

By The Athletic UK StaffMar 15, 2024

Let the pre-European Championship England selection debates ramp up a level. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Yesterday (Thursday), manager Gareth Southgate named his squad for their upcoming friendlies against Brazil and Belgium at Wembley — England’s last games before he finalises his travelling party for the Euros being played in Germany in June and July.

There are first call-ups for Newcastle United winger Anthony Gordon and his former Everton team-mate Jarrad Branthwaite, uncapped Aston Villa defender Ezri Konsa is also in, while Liverpool defender Joe Gomez and Brentford striker Ivan Toney have both returned to the fold. Ajax midfielder Jordan Henderson and Chelsea forward Cole Palmer have been called up again, but there is no place for midfielder Kalvin Phillips, who has struggled for game time at both parent club Manchester City and West Ham United, who he joined on loan in January.

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So who were the luckiest players to have earned a call-up as the Euros creep ever closer and who was unfortunate to miss out? Who has a golden opportunity to book themselves a seat on the plane to Germany in these friendlies at Wembley against two more of the top five teams in the world rankings?

The Athletic’s Liam Tharme, Mark Critchley, Nick Miller, Rob Tanner, Jacob Whitehead and Tim Spiers are here to pore over Southgate’s selections and answer those questions.

Who is the luckiest player to make it?

Tharme: Henderson. England have real depth in midfield now and could feasibly integrate Rico Lewis, Curtis Jones or James Garner from the under-21s.

The midfield will, rightly, be built around Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham. Henderson is becoming little more than a water carrier and his career moves (to Saudi Arabia last summer, then Ajax of the Netherlands in January) are uninspiring. James Ward-Prowse would be a better depth pick for his set pieces. It is back to 23-man squads at these Euros after teams were allowed 26 players at the 2022 World Cup, so every selection counts.

Critchley: Henderson’s first call-up since leaving the Saudi Pro League is not especially surprising given he was still getting the nod from Southgate as an Al Ettifaq player. Southgate values his leadership abilities and England are not blessed with many experienced central midfield options. Were it not for those two factors, you wonder whether winning just one of his first seven games with Ajax would have been enough to retain his spot.

Miller: The obvious answer here, in the absence of Phillips, is Henderson, but at least he’s playing regularly. From that perspective, Aaron Ramsdale is pretty fortunate there aren’t many other viable English goalkeepers around. Still, he’s a backup goalkeeper picked as a backup goalkeeper. Maybe he’s perfect for the role.

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Tanner: Ben Chilwell. The Chelsea left-back has been struggling with injury — and not just during this season. It seems strange that he should be included when there are question marks over his knee problem and the severity of it. England may be short of fit left-backs right now, but there is little point including a player who seems unlikely to be able to play significant minutes in these games.

Jordan Henderson has 81 England caps (Lars Baron/Getty Images)

Whitehead: It has to be Henderson — the jettisoning of Phillips shows the fate which could have met the former Liverpool captain. He profits here from England’s lack of options rather than his own form — he has hardly torn up the Eredivisie since moving from Al Ettifaq. Southgate sees Henderson as a leader, but how much credit can you carry with team-mates when you’ve been struggling on the pitch?

Spiers: I could try to be clever or niche here, but sometimes you just have to speak the truth that’s staring you in the face — and that truth is Henderson. This is nothing to do with him going to Saudi Arabia. It’s just down to football ability and, from what I saw of Henderson last season for Liverpool and for England before Christmas, he’s just not capable of influencing top-level matches anymore. He may be a leader and an important voice in the dressing room, which would be fine in a squad of 26, but it’s very hard to justify him making a 23-man squad this summer. Southgate will attempt to do just that.

Who is the unluckiest player to miss out? 

Tharme: Dominic Solanke is in the form of his career. Villa’s Ollie Watkins (16) is the only Englishman with more than Solanke’s 15 Premier League goals this season. Displacing Harry Kane is never going to happen, but Solanke is the most similar profile to Kane — an all-round No 9 who can drop in to link play, score with both feet (and increasingly his head) and lead the press. A lack of senior international experience is counting against him, but Solanke is one of the strongest shouts for a depth form pick.

Critchley: Kobbie Mainoo was always unlikely to be in the squad this time given he is yet to make the step up to under-21 level in international football, but there are good arguments for fast-tracking him. Manchester United did, after all. Most players Mainoo’s age would be sent out on loan, but that was never an option for Erik ten Hag, whose faith in the 18-year-old has been fully vindicated. How many other English midfielders have looked as composed under pressure — both when picking passes and dribbling out of a press — as he has? His presence of mind in England’s midfield would be an asset.

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Miller: Dominic Solanke doesn’t strike you as a particularly angry young man, but he would be within his rights to be irked at getting overlooked again. He’s not getting in the team ahead of Harry Kane, or even Ollie Watkins, but he’s been superb for Bournemouth (I’ve watched his goal against Luton on Wednesday night about a billion times already) and I would have picked him over Toney.

Solanke celebrates winning the Under-20 World Cup in 2017 in South Korea (Maddie Meyer – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Tanner: Solanke. Having scored 15 Premier League goals for Bournemouth this season, it is hard to imagine what more he can do to get Southgate’s attention. He has been Bournemouth’s main man for several seasons now and is the second-highest-scoring Englishman in the Premier League. 

Whitehead: In any ordinary circumstance, it would be Ben White — but Southgate has said the Arsenal defender ruled himself out of selection despite his interest in picking him. “There was clearly reticence on his side,” Southgate said post-selection, seemingly ruling him out of the Euros. It isn’t a case of luck, but White is the ‘What if?’ of this squad.

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Spiers: Just like Henderson is fortunate that England are not blessed with central midfield options, Solanke is unlucky that he finds his route to the squad blocked by Toney (who somehow, despite being talked up as Kane’s backup for about three years now, still only has one England cap, which feels incredibly low, his recently-ended eight-month ban notwithstanding) and the excellent Watkins.

When you think that Rickie Lambert, Jay Bothroyd and David Nugent all assumed the role of England striker once upon a time, Solanke’s 15 goals in 28 league appearances for a team currently 13th in the table would be enough for a call-up in many eras, but not this one.

Who from this squad could make a late run for Southgate’s squad for the Euros?

Tharme: Gordon. Left-winger is not a problem position for Southgate, with Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford as experienced options, but Gordon’s direct speed, one-v-one ability, tendency to draw fouls and varied goals library — cutting in and finding the far post, crashing the back post from crosses for the right — would make him a valuable asset. Fourteen goal involvements in the Premier League this season is a phenomenal return and he played a false nine role for England Under-21s in their Euros win last summer.

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Critchley: Branthwaite’s profile as a left-sided centre-back has to stand him in good stead and though far from his natural position, he could provide an emergency option at left-back given the fitness records of Chilwell and Luke Shaw. Toney’s return is interesting, assuming Southgate intends to take two players per outfield position — so Kane-plus-one up front. Watkins surely has to be Kane’s backup on form, but Toney’s inclusion indicates his chances are not over yet.

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Miller: England’s central defensive options are a little thin, even when everyone is fit, so there’s a clutch of defenders here who could elbow their way in. Konsa has deserved a call-up for some time, so you’d hope he would be the one, but Branthwaite has ‘Bring him on for the last 10 minutes as England try to see out a win with a narrow lead’ written all over him.

Tanner: Gomez has to fancy his chances now if he stays fit and can maintain his recent form with Liverpool. His versatility could prove invaluable in a tournament as he can step in anywhere across the back four. With Reece James, Chilwell and Shaw all struggling with injuries, Gomez has a great opportunity to stake a strong claim as Liverpool chase silverware on three fronts this spring.

Joe Gomez last played for England in 2020 (Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)

Whitehead: Branthwaite. While Harry Maguire has been John Stones’ long-term defensive partner, England’s backup centre-backs — or even Maguire’s eventual replacement — have been a rotating cast of prospects. Branthwaite has the potential to be that player: quick, defensively sound, and with a far wider range of passing than he’s been able to show so far at Everton. His experience of European football on loan at PSV Eindhoven last season (in the Europa League) is also useful.

Spiers: Fitness permitting, you could probably name 18 or 19 of Southgate’s Euros squad now, but there are a few spots up for grabs, notably in the wide-forward areas where a few former favourites are dropping out of contention. Sterling hasn’t been called up since the World Cup, Jack Grealish is having an awful season in terms of form and fitness and Rashford is a shadow of the player he was last season. With Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden likely to play either side of Kane, England need a pacy, aggressive, hard-working, two-footed wild card option capable of goals (nine in the Premier League this season) and assists (five). Get Gordon on that plane.

Are there any players not selected you think should be in contention for the Euros?  

Tharme: Tino Livramento of Newcastle. Chilwell is the only natural left-back in the squad and is not guaranteed to be fit. Livramento can play on both sides, is a right-footer, and while England have looked one-dimensional at times with a right-footer at left-back, his one-on-one duelling ability and athletic profile are excellent. He would provide cover in multiple positions and has all the makings of a Southgate full-back, not to mention already having enough under-21s experience.

Critchley: Though currently out with an ankle injury, I’m surprised more has not been made of Jones’ credentials this season. A regular for Liverpool when available, he was an integral part of the under-21s’ Euros success last summer and offers a different option in something of a problem position. Fitness is the biggest obstacle between him and a squad spot. That Jones is still waiting for a first senior call-up means this tournament probably comes too soon for him, but with question marks over the long-term places of Henderson and Phillips, he should come into contention in future squads.

Miller: Jones is injured at the moment but assuming he comes back for Liverpool and shows anything like the sort of form he had previously, he has to be among Southgate’s options. Central midfield could be a problem area, so from that perspective, it’s a bit strange that Jones hasn’t been called up before.

Jones has yet to be capped by England at senior level (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Tanner: Ruben Loftus-Cheek has been in the best form of his career since moving to Serie A with AC Milan last summer. Injuries frequently interrupted his development at Chelsea but he showed in spells what a talent he is, earning a place in Southgate’s 2018 World Cup squad. This season he has made 33 appearances, including in the Champions League, and started 29 of them, scoring nine goals and providing two assists. He hasn’t played for England since November 2018 and despite now being in his prime years at the age of 28 and in the best form of his career, he must wonder if he will ever get the call again.

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Whitehead: Several injured players have been left out of this squad, but it would be good to see Jones in contention. When fit, he has been one of Liverpool’s most impressive players this season and possesses the versatility to play across the midfield. 

Spiers: Whatever’s going on with White could really do with being resolved because he’d be a perfect backup right-back to Kyle Walker and a great centre-back option, but it feels like that ship has sailed with the tournament now only three months away. The Phillips ship is leaking water, but if he can repair his form before the season is out, it will solve a Southgate headache in midfield and enable Rice to push forward slightly to influence play instead of sitting rather frustratingly behind, say, Trent Alexander-Arnold. Or — gulp — Henderson.

From this squad, what would your XI be for a competitive game? 

Tharme: Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire, Chilwell; Gallagher, Rice; Saka, Bellingham, Foden; Kane.

Critchley: Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire, Chilwell; Gallagher, Rice, Bellingham; Saka, Kane, Foden.

Miller: Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire, Chilwell; Rice, Henderson; Foden, Bellingham, Saka; Kane.

Whitehead: Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire, Chilwell; Rice, Gallagher; Saka, Bellingham, Foden; Kane.

Tanner: Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire, Gomez; Rice, Bellingham, Maddison; Saka, Kane, Foden.

Spiers: Pickford; Walker, Dunk, Maguire, Chilwell; Stones, Rice; Saka, Bellingham, Foden; Kane.

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(Top photos: Getty Images)

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