Formation, full-backs, Grealish: big calls facing Southgate for Euro 2020

Back to a back three?

It wouldn’t be a major tournament without an England player struggling to prove his fitness. Harry Maguire is in the David Beckham role this time and the doubts over the Manchester United centre-back have left Gareth Southgate with a tough decision about his formation against Croatia. England look shaky without Maguire, who has not played since damaging ankle ligaments on 9 May, and their defensive wobbles could force Southgate to use a back three.

It comes down to the quality of the backup centre-backs. Although a 4-3-3 would allow Southgate to be more attacking, the manager is struggling to find a reliable partner for John Stones in Maguire’s absence. Tyrone Mings did himself no favours against Austria and Romania, Conor Coady does not convince and it would be a big call to start the inexperienced Ben White.

No wonder the back three looks more appealing. Southgate is thinking about it and has even trialled Luke Shaw as the left centre-back in training. Unless Mason Mount drops back to partner Declan Rice in midfield, however, England will have to drop one of their creators if they play 3-4-3.

The danger is that they end up with seven defensive players, handing Croatia the initiative. Given the attacking talent at his disposal, Southgate will not be popular if England struggle to make chances at Wembley on Sunday.

Which full-backs to use?

Southgate’s squad contains plenty of full-backs despite the withdrawal of Trent Alexander-Arnold. Reece James, Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker are strong options on the right, Ben Chilwell and Shaw are battling for inclusion on the left and it is not easy to decide who to leave out.

The general assumption is that Walker would start at right-back in a 4-3-3 because of his pace and experience. Yet Trippier has had a good season for Atlético Madrid and James offers youthful exuberance, strength and dangerous crossing. It is a conundrum and it just as tricky on the left. Shaw has had an excellent season for United and thrills with his surging runs, but Chilwell has just played a major role in Chelsea winning the Champions League and offers more of a goal threat.

Jordan Henderson, training with England this week, has played one half of football since February. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

Is Henderson fit?

Maguire is not the only injury concern. Although Jordan Henderson insists that he is ready to face Croatia, the Liverpool midfielder has played one half of football since suffering a groin injury in February and it remains to be seen whether he is sharp enough. Southgate will be under pressure if Henderson is off the pace. England are not exactly spoilt for choice in central midfield and Southgate has taken a gamble by leaving out James Ward-Prowse.

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The midfield setup

England must retain an attacking threat if they use a back three. Creating chances will be harder if Southgate sticks with a double pivot, playing Henderson or Kalvin Phillips next to Rice. It feels too conservative and they could regret not using Mount in a deeper role.

The debate changes in a 4-3-3, though. Rice will need help from Henderson or Phillips in front of the defence and, although Jude Bellingham’s performances for Borussia Dortmund show that he is not on work experience, England’s midfield was too open when the 17-year-old started against Austria.

Does Sterling keep his place?

The popular move from Southgate would be to have Mount, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish scheming behind Harry Kane. Mount, Foden and Grealish have had fantastic seasons and most supporters would prefer to see them start instead of Raheem Sterling, who has had a disappointing campaign for Manchester City. Sterling was underwhelming in the Champions League final and his England place will be under threat if Southgate sticks to his mantra of picking on club form.

Yet Southgate is not always consistent with his selections. He is loyal to certain players and there is an argument that England are more effective when they have forwards willing to run beyond Kane, who likes to drop deep and open defences with clever reverse passes.

Foden, Grealish and Mount are quick but they are unlikely to make those runs for Kane. Sterling proved that he will when England destroyed Spain on the counterattack in October 2018. Marcus Rashford also starred in that game and is another who can trouble full-backs with his pace and directness, and the speedy, skilful Jadon Sancho has had a strong season for Dortmund.

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Does Southgate unleash Grealish?

At least Southgate is not short of options in attack. The positive is that he can tweak his approach depending on the opposition. Some games may call for nimble inside-forwards, others for fast wingers who charge down the outside.

Yet there is always going to be a clamour for Grealish to start. The Aston Villa playmaker, who excelled against Austria and Romania, is already a fan favourite. Grealish makes things happen. He draws defenders, creating space for others, and wins fouls in dangerous positions. He scores, creates and always looks for the ball. Can Southgate really leave him out?

The issue is how to make space for Grealish. Mount’s positional awareness and performances for Chelsea make him impossible to drop and Foden is a fixture in City’s starting XI. Once again it comes back to Sterling.