By Neil Leverett
- England book place in next summer’s continent-wide 2020 European Championships
- Three Lions finish top of Group A with 21 points, six ahead of sole conquerors Czech Republic
- Gareth Southgate’s blossoming side net 37 goals in qualifying, but questions remain
PRISTINA, KOSOVO – Having safely booked their passage for next summer after winning Group A, what did we learn from England’s 2020 European Championships qualifying campaign?
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An embarrassment of riches….
When drawn in Group A for the qualifying stages of the 2020 European Championships with the Czech Republic, Kosovo, Montenegro and Bulgaria, anything less than relatively smooth sailing for England towards another footballing summer expedition would have been a huge upset – given their status in the World’s top four nations – but nonetheless, the Three Lions will take part in the very first Europe-wide championships in just seven month’s time.
Despite a surprise loss in Prague – England’s first in a qualifier in a decade – Gareth Southgate‘s men finished top of the tree with 21 points, but their goal-scoring exploits have continued the huge wave of excitement in the national team once more, in reuniting both estranged team and fan.
Boasting one of the most potent and dangerous attacks not just in Europe but across the globe, a unit of Harry Kane, Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling, Callum Hudson-Odoi, James Maddison, Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham are equipped with not only savvy, electric pace and a creative arc, but seem loaded to the gills with goals to boot.
During a whirlwind campaign post-Nations League, England scored four times in all but one of their eight Group games and despite opposition which many will say were a soft touch, a collective tally of 37 goals is not to be sniffed at and a far cry, from the days of laboured performances and defensive showings.
Most impressively aside from Kane, 25 of those came from individuals other than the Spurs hitman – nine different players in total. The evidence is there for all to see; England’s wares in offence are something for any team in the international game to fear and with great trepidation.
…and an unease in defence?
The elephant in the room however, remains. Having seen their attacking options multiply, England problems in defence has also moved in a similar direction, however as the crux of their progress in Russia their dwindling fortunes in defence are perhaps of bigger concern.
Having opted to move away from a back three, wing-back system, Kyle Walker has found himself frozen out for the time being, but both the once fancied Michael Keane and John Stones have taken dramatic steps backwards in their progress.
Whilst Harry Maguire remains a realistic choice – for his goals from set-pieces if nothing else – both Keane and Stones have proved to be ill at ease with their positions on the field, proving once more for having the propensity to switch off at any given moment.
Kieran Trippier‘s move to Spain has been seen as vital both for player and country, but whilst the emphasis will be on attack in the coming months and indeed years, both he and Trent Alexander-Arnold may have to reel their games in to balance the England cause out.
The key to any successful side to lift international silverware is balance, but rather alarmingly right now, for all England’s attacking prowess, their defensive problems could and likely will rear their ugly heads next summer. The scales currently, are top heavy.
Kane on course for greatness
Led to the European Championships by Kane, England have now found the perfect talisman to guide the Three Lions onwards, again proving to be one of the finest strikers in his field anywhere in world football and on a wider scale, Kane is set for greatness as surely an England legend.
As his country’s very first forward to score in every game in a qualifying Group stage, the 26-year-old continues to tear up the record books and netted two hat-tricks along the way this time around.
At a still relatively tender age, Kane has already racked up 45 caps to his name, with a remarkable tally of 32 goals in that period – already just 21 behind Wayne Rooney.
The Three Lions have had some of the most iconic strikers in their storied history; Rooney himself, Gary Lineker, Michael Owen Alan Shearer and of course the World Cup-winning Sir Geoff Hurst. However, it appears Kane could become the very best.
Southgate must find Maguire partner
At the top of Southgate’s agenda for March’s pre-Euro friendlies will be the task of unearthing a hidden gem in defence, as the Three Lions continue to give their fans palpitations of the wrong sort, given their increasingly potent arsenal in attack.
Having trialled Tyrone Mings in the back line with positive signs, the England boss will nevertheless be keen on looking at other options at his disposal, which may include giving Fikayo Tomori more game time ahead of next summer, given the rise of the centre-back under the Frank Lampard revolution at Chelsea.
Tomori won his first cap off the bench in Pristina – perhaps to ward off the interests of the circling Nigerian national team – but the Canadian-born 21-year-old remains raw in the extreme and the Euro’s may come too soon for the Blue.
With neither Stones nor Keane reliable personnel at the back, the options for now to Southgate are limited. Perhaps however, the answer could come in the form of two of Sheffield United’s main men in defence.
Together will Irishman John Egan, both Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham have formed the stronghold for the Blades’ rousing first third of the Premier League campaign, and under Chris Wilder‘s tutelage the Yorkshire side sit in the heady heights of fifth in English top flight – ahead of both Arsenal and Manchester United.
Of the two, O’Connell is perhaps the more likely candidate at just 25, and having already dipped his toe in the international pool with England’s U-18 and U19’s between 2012 and 2013 – three as captain – could Southgate look again at the Liverpudlian?
Lewis Dunk is also another to reconsider, as are Burnley duo Ben Mee and James Tarkowski, the latter of whom was not given a fair crack at the whip first time around.
Regardless of names to consider, no sooner has England’s pass been stamped for Euro 2020, the sands of time of the hourglass of preparation have began to flow, and if England are to challenge go toe-to-toe with the best sides in Europe next summer, the defensive issue must be solved.
Three Lions again Euro contenders
16 months on from reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup in Russia, England’s upward curve amongst the world football elite has continued during their European 2020 qualification campaign, indeed in many ways, the Three Lions are in ruder health than during 2018’s summer odyssey.
Having booked their place in a sixth successive major footballing competition, their berth in the next European Championships however, will see Southgate’s men re-installed as genuine contenders to be crowned champions of the continent – for the first time.
Perhaps unfortunately however, whilst the World Cup found the Three Lions in the perfect moment to swing their future toward a positive direction, their hopes of Euro glory will be met by fierce opposition.
For Belgium, this could be Roberto Martinez‘ last chance to end their wait for silverware, whilst Spain, Italy and Germany are again building formidable quads once more. UEFA Nations League winners Portugal and the Netherlands are also looking menacing. whilst nothing more need be said of World champions France.
Euro 2020 then, is set to be perhaps the most fiercely contested championships in recent memory, and happily for once, England can again be placed safely in the box labelled ‘contenders’ again.
The draw for the 2020 European Championships takes place at the ROMEXPO in Bucharest, Romania on Saturday 30 November at 17:00 UK time.
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