The draw for next summer’s Euro 2024 in Germany will take place at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie concert hall on Saturday evening as England find out who they must overcome in the group phase of their quest to finally land a major men’s trophy.
England breezed through qualifying unbeaten with six wins and two draws – however, this has become standard procedure followed by the silverware proving elusive at the showpiece itself.
Manager Gareth Southgate will be finalising his selection plans for the tournament, with still plenty of matters for debate.
Southgate’s final fling?
This will be Southgate’s fourth major tournament as England manager and it is an indication of his record in major tournaments and the team he has assembled that there will be genuine disappointment if they do not win Euro 2024.
There is a growing sense this will be Southgate’s final tilt at a major trophy as England manager.
Logic dictates that if England do not win, this will be regarded as coming up short again when it mattered, meaning the time has come for a fresh outlook. If England do win it, this may just be the perfect time for Southgate to bow out with his contract expiring in December 2024.
Southgate may, of course, fancy a tilt at the 2026 World Cup if England are successful – but four major tournaments and a tenure stretching back to his permanent appointment in November 2016 can almost be regarded as a marathon stint.
As with all England managers, results shape futures, so Southgate has absolutely no requirement to make any commitment until Euro 2024 is over. However, his eminent common sense will tell him questions will be asked should a team of this current quality fail to end the wait for a major men’s trophy that stretches back to the 1966 World Cup.
Southgate will never win over detractors who point to missed opportunities in the 2018 World Cup semi-final against Croatia, the Euro 2020 final against Italy at Wembley and a World Cup quarter-final loss to France in Qatar a year ago.
What should not be forgotten, however, is that Southgate inherited a chaotic shambles following Sam Allardyce’s one-match reign and has the best big tournament record of any England manager since Sir Alf Ramsey.
England off the leash?
It’s an old argument and one that has consistently swirled around Southgate, perhaps understandably to his irritation.
England have a thrilling set of attacking players, but the complaint goes that Southgate becomes cloaked in conservatism when the heat is on, with fingers pointed at how there seemed to be an icy grip of inertia when they took early leads in those key games against Croatia and Italy.
Now the clamour for flair has never been greater, given the riches at Southgate’s disposal, from captain Harry Kane to the Manchester City pair of Phil Foden and Jack Grealish, along with Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka. And this is before we even mention the brilliant Jude Bellingham, regarded as the best young player in world football by many sound judges.
All eyes will be on Southgate’s formation and how he uses those resources.
Declan Rice will be vital in Germany, but will Southgate go for a holding midfield player alongside him in Manchester City’s Kalvin Phillips or Jordan Henderson, or perhaps find room for the lavishly gifted Liverpool player Trent Alexander-Arnold in his more advanced role?
Southgate will be working on that delicate balancing act before Germany. Simply saying he should fill England’s team with all-out attack is easier said than done when facing quality opposition.
There is no doubt, though, that England will never have a better opportunity or collection of talent to take the attack to any opposition in Germany next summer.
Will Southgate’s loyalty last?
Southgate has been unfailingly loyal to the England players who have served him well in recent years, even if the conventional wisdom suggests a number of their places should have been in serious jeopardy.
The prime cases have been Manchester United defender Harry Maguire, Manchester City’s Kalvin Phillips and former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson.
Southgate stood firmly by Maguire even when he was marginalised by Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag and suffering the mockery of his own fans for club and country, while Phillips has been selected despite the fact that describing him as a bit-part player under Pep Guardiola would actually exaggerate his contribution on the field.
Henderson has also figured for England despite now being a 33-year-old playing in the less intense surrounding of the Saudi Pro League. He has also felt the wrath of England’s fans after his move from Liverpool.
Southgate has fiercely defended Maguire and Henderson as they have come under increasing scrutiny from fans, demonstrating his inner steel by sticking firmly with those who have delivered in the past.
The Maguire problem has recently been resolved, at least for now, after he won his place back in the United side but Phillips, who has understandably looked off the pace in an England shirt in recent times, will surely need to make some sort of move from Manchester City in January.
Even Southgate’s loyalty would surely be tested if Phillips barely played any football between now and next summer, while a close eye will be kept on how Henderson fares away from the Premier League hothouse in Saudi Arabia.
And what about Raheem Sterling?
He was one of the mainstays of Southgate’s squad but has been very much on the outside looking in since withdrawing by mutual consent from Euro 2024 qualifiers against Malta and North Macedonia at the end of last season to concentrate on rebuilding his fitness.
Sterling has shown improved form for Chelsea but has fallen down the pecking order behind Foden, Grealish, Saka, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Jarrod Bowen of West Ham. Cole Palmer, Sterling’s new team-mate at Stamford Bridge, has now also emerged.
Southgate rightly asks who he should drop to accommodate Sterling’s return. He insists the door is still open but it looks like Sterling faces an uphill task to win a place in England’s Euro 2024 party.
The early months of 2024 will be crucial for many key figures in the England’s squad.
Is there still a chance for a ‘bolter’?
The time-honoured ‘bolter’ is the player who makes the late charge for the line and comes up on the rails to win a place in the squad.
And there are already contenders emerging for Southgate’s consideration, even if most of the places for the trip to Germany are taken.
Chelsea’s Palmer made substitute appearances against Malta and North Macedonia as merited reward for the 21-year-old’s eye-catching form since his £40m move from Manchester City.
Newcastle United’s Anthony Gordon is another who will surely be coming under Southgate’s scrutiny given his outstanding form this season. His talent is well known to England’s coaches as he was named player of the tournament by Uefa’s technical observer panel as he helped England win the 2023 European Under-21 Championship in Georgia.
Crystal Palace’s Eberechi Eze has also won senior England caps and could Ivan Toney make a late play to challenge as an understudy to Kane when the Brentford striker returns from an eight-month suspension for breaching FA betting rules in January?
One thing is for certain – new names will appear on the radar before the final squad is selected.
Can England win Euro 2024?
Will they? This is the big question.
The ability is there, the squad strength is there, but can they put all the pieces together to finally get the job done when they have fallen short in the past?
In captain Kane and Bellingham, Southgate has two players who will be the envy of every other team at Euro 2024. They are world-class talents who not only deliver for England but have also made stunning impacts since joining Bayern Munich and Real Madrid respectively.
England have huge variety in attack, a solid midfield base through Arsenal’s Rice and a top-class goalkeeper in Jordan Pickford.
Questions remain about England’s central defence against opponents of the highest calibre, but whatever comes out of Saturday’s draw, Southgate and his players should fear no-one – and there will be no disguising the feeling of failure should this class of 2023-24 not finally deliver in Germany.