Six issues that England must address before the start of Euro 2024 | Jacob Steinberg

Estimated read time 5 min read

Fitness worries in defence

England’s defence picks itself if everyone is fit: Kyle Walker at right-back, John Stones and Harry Maguire at centre-back, Luke Shaw on the left. It is the tried and trusted formula and Gareth Southgate will be desperate to have it available after being forced into unsuccessful experiments without his favoured quartet during the March friendlies against Brazil and Belgium.

Yet concerns are mounting. Maguire and Shaw missed Manchester United’s triumph in the FA Cup final, and Stones did not play much for Manchester City during the run-in. It may have concerned Southgate to see Stones struggle when he returned to the City starting lineup against United last weekend.

Is there sufficient central cover? Jarrad Branthwaite and Jarell Quansah are uncapped, Lewis Dunk is out of form, Ezri Konsa is inexperienced at this level and Joe Gomez did not convince during the last camp. It is just as well that Crystal Palace’s Marc Guéhi is back from long-term injury.

Southgate would probably be comfortable with Guéhi deputising for Maguire, who has not played since 27 April. Most observers would probably argue that the speedy, technically assured Palace centre-back should already rank above the burly United defender.

There will be more fretting over Shaw’s fitness. He made 15 appearances this season – the last was on 18 February – and Southgate has admitted the 28-year-old is a long shot to make the Euros.

Unfortunately, alternatives at left-back are thin on the ground. Southgate has gambled by omitting Ben Chilwell and Tyrick Mitchell, which means the right-footed and increasingly error-prone Kieran Trippier could have to fill in on the left. It is not ideal and Southgate needs Shaw to prove his fitness in England’s warmup games against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Monday and Iceland on Friday.

Assess Alexander-Arnold

It was frustrating that a knee injury prevented Trent Alexander-Arnold from being trialled in midfield against Brazil and Belgium. The third midfield spot remains up for grabs and Southgate is keen to see whether Alexander-Arnold can flourish alongside Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice.

“I like him in that area of the pitch,” he said last month. “He’s enjoyed the games he’s had with us in that area.”

The question, though, is whether Alexander-Arnold understands the position well enough to start against elite opposition in a knockout game. He mostly played as an inverted right-back for Liverpool this season, which enabled Jürgen Klopp to unlock the quality of the 25-year-old’s passing in central areas and continue to benefit from his brilliant deliveries from the wing.

Playing as a conventional midfielder would be different. The role would be less fluid, with more focus on positional discipline, and there may not be as many crossing opportunities.

For Alexander-Arnold, the challenge will be to show that he is attuned to the subtleties of playing in midfield. But if he impresses in the warmup games then he has every chance of starting England’s Euro 2024 opener against Serbia on 16 June.

Can Mainoo be trusted?

There was no sign of Kobbie Mainoo shrinking on the big stage when he scored the goal that ultimately clinched the FA Cup for United. Nothing seems to faze the 19-year-old. The United midfielder was outstanding against City and assured when he made his full debut for England in the 2-2 draw with Belgium.

That said, it was interesting to hear Southgate say England were slightly more open when Mainoo played against Belgium. If Alexander-Arnold is overlooked, will the energetic Conor Gallagher, who has impressed as a No 6 for Chelsea, be used to give Rice more freedom to surge forward in games? Or do the young uncapped duo of Curtis Jones and Adam Wharton have any hope of forcing their way into the final 26-man squad?

Kobbie Mainoo on the ball against Belgium.View image in fullscreen

Eze or Maddison?

Timing can be everything in international football. When James Maddison was flying for Tottenham during the first half of last season, fitness problems were threatening to ruin Eberechi Eze’s hopes of going to the Euros.

The vibe is different now. Maddison has gone off the boil since recovering from an ankle injury in January and his place has to be under threat given how Eze has played since returning to full fitness at the start of March.

Eze was looking sharp at the end of the season, scoring five goals in six games and delighting with the sheer inventiveness of his play in attacking midfield. If England are looking for a gamechanger off the bench, there is a growing case for it to be him instead of Maddison. Southgate, though, may remember Maddison came on to create Bellingham’s equaliser against Belgium.

Grealish under pressure

Pep Guardiola did not turn to Jack Grealish when Manchester City needed a goal in the FA Cup final. The winger remained on the bench and there is no guarantee that Southgate will stick with Grealish after a season that never got going.

After all, there is hardly a shortage of creative options. Cole Palmer, Jarrod Bowen and Anthony Gordon are pushing for inclusion and Southgate has displayed his ruthless side by dropping Marcus Rashford and Jordan Henderson. Perhaps that is why Grealish turned up early for training this past week. He knows that he faces a battle to stay in Southgate’s plans.

Kane’s understudy

Harry Kane getting injured? Let’s not pretend it wouldn’t be a disaster. That said, there are fallback options up front. Ivan Toney played well and scored against Belgium and Ollie Watkins was key to Aston Villa finishing fourth in the Premier League.

Is there room for two backup strikers, though? A squad of 26 means there is space for indulgence, but injuries could mean that Southgate takes the insurance of extra defenders.


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