Shearer: England super 6 of Watkins, Kane, Foden, Bellingham, Rice and Saka can play in same team – The Athletic

By Alan Shearer8h ago

England will go into Euro 2024 in June with the most individual quality they have ever been able to deploy at a major tournament.

Five of the front six are guaranteed starters: Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka and Harry Kane. Those players, all of them enjoying brilliant seasons, make up five of the best front six in world football.

But there is one spot in the team still up for grabs. Everyone will have their own opinion about what Gareth Southgate should do in the three months between now and England’s opener in Germany against Serbia, about who should be the missing piece of the jigsaw along with those five names above.

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We know that Gareth is most likely to go for the stability provided by an extra midfielder, just like he did with Kalvin Phillips at Euro 2020 or Jordan Henderson at the Qatar World Cup. I don’t think England need that extra layer of protection but clearly, Gareth does. Or maybe he would want another creative midfielder. Or to gamble with Trent Alexander-Arnold in there instead, an experiment he has been trying out in recent years.

Watkins has been in fine form this season (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

But there is another viable option, one that I would like to throw into the mix. I don’t expect Gareth to go for this approach but there are circumstances when it would be exactly what England needed.

Play Ollie Watkins in the No 9 role. Kane can drop back into the No 10 space, which we all know is a natural part of his game and one where he has been so key in creating for England, Tottenham and Bayern Munich. Bellingham would take up a deeper midfield position alongside Rice. Foden and Saka still cut in from out wide. 

Yes, it would be a first, as the two have never shared a pitch for England — but this season, Watkins is looking like the most improved player in the Premier League. He has 16 league goals already, his best top-flight return, with 11 games left to play. This is already the season of his life. Some of the credit for that must go down to Unai Emery, who appears to have told Watkins to do the vast majority of his work between the width of the penalty area. It’s not genius but it certainly works.

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I always say that the one thing defenders hate doing is running back towards their own goal. That is exactly what Watkins makes you do because he is constantly running in behind them, a nightmare for them to play against. There is a little bit of Jermain Defoe to how he plays: he’s very intelligent with his movement, he’s got good feet, he’s quick and is always looking to find space in the box.

Another thing I love about watching Watkins this season is his huge passion and love for the game. Maybe his pathway to this point — playing for Weston-super-Mare in non-League, Exeter City in League Two and then Brentford in the Championship — makes him appreciate the top flight a bit more, a bit like Ian Wright in my day, but Watkins looks as if he has a great zest for what he’s doing right now. He probably feels that when walks out onto the pitch, he’s no longer just hoping to score — he’s expecting to score. Believe me, that is a great feeling for a striker to have.

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So if something were to happen to Kane in the next few months, and he was unavailable for the European Championship, then Watkins would be the obvious answer to replace him. My point here is that we should consider Watkins as a possible partner to Kane, rather than just a replacement for him.

There will be times in Germany this summer when the situation will call for it, times when England need to change things up. I’ve played in Euros and World Cups before and know what these difficult group games are like. Everyone back at home expects you to demolish the opposition but we should know that very rarely happens. It’s going to be hot out there, and we will be facing three teams — Serbia, Denmark and Slovenia — who are not going to just roll over and make it easy for us. England are going to need a Plan B.

That is why I like the idea of having Watkins as an extra forward, rather than picking an extra midfielder. We all know how much joy Kane has had over the years just off someone who likes to run in behind: Raheem Sterling or Marcus Rashford for England, Son Heung-min for Spurs. With Watkins’ constant running in behind, Kane could drop into that No 10 role, get the ball, turn and play balls over the top for Watkins to run onto.

Watkins and Kane don’t usually play for England at the same time (Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

Elsewhere in the front six, Gareth has an embarrassment of riches to choose from. We’ve seen this season that Foden is bloody special, one of the first names on the sheet for Pep Guardiola. There is no doubt at all now that he is world-class and you simply have to find a place in the team for him. Bellingham getting into this mighty Real Madrid team, making it look so easy and scoring the goals that he has, is remarkable. Rice is doing exactly what Mikel Arteta bought him for, and Saka is a great player too, I absolutely love his attitude.

So there is no doubt that Gareth already has some great individuals to choose from. He just has to pick one more for that front six and get the best out of the whole team. And while I expect him to go for an extra midfielder again, I don’t think it is a crazy idea to think of Watkins up front. I get what everyone will say. Do I think it will happen? No. Could it work? Absolutely.

(Top photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

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