Euro 2020's postponement
There will be no international football during the summer of 2020. Euro 2020 retains its name, but has to all other purposes become Euro 2021. The coronavirus has slashed its way through the sporting calendar, and the scheduled major tournament for 2020 has been delayed by 12 months. For Gareth Southgate and England, however, there may be reasons to be positive.
Where there were previously concerns surrounding injuries to Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford, they both now have a further year to recover their form and fitness. Jordan Pickford and John Stones, also among those struggling for consistency, will have more time to correct that.
There are also the potential benefits that will come from so many of Southgate's promising young players having a further year's experience of senior football. Maybe, for England, Southgate and so many of his leading players, Euro 2020 would have actually come a year too soon.
There is a perception in football that experience is important for a goalkeeper. It’s rare, for example, to see a young goalkeeper relied upon as Dean Henderson has been at Sheffield United. History also confirms that experience is even more valuable at international level.
World Cup and European Championship-winning goalkeepers are almost invariably between the ages of 27 and 31, which seems to be the perfect age for success in goal in international football. All but one first-choice goalkeeper in a team that has won a major international tournament this century has been in that age bracket, the exception being Greece’s then 33-year-old Antonios Nikopolidis at Euro 2004. Pickford will be 27 by the summer of 2021 – and, in addition to recovering his form, could also benefit from the time he will have to hone his abilities.
Pickford is under pressure from Henderson, who should feel the benefits of a further season to convince Southgate that he is ready to be England’s number one, even if at 23 he remains a way off that sweet spot between the ages of 27 and 31. Henderson has started all but once for the team with the second best defence in the Premier League in 2019/20; before the season was halted, Sheffield United had conceded just 25 goals in 28 games. According to Understat's "expected goals" numbers, Sheffield United had faced shots that should have resulted in around 37 goals conceded. Henderson has therefore been largely responsible for preventing 12 opposition goals – the biggest positive differential in the Premier League.
Pickford, meanwhile, has been ever-present for Everton, conceding 46 times in 29 appearances when, according to the expected goals numbers, the shots on target he has faced should have resulted in 37 goals. His negative differential of around nine goals is the worst in the Premier League. It does not feel like the ideal time for Pickford to be heading in to an international tournament as England's first-choice goalkeeper.
It wasn’t long ago that perhaps five players could make a decent case to be called England’s best left-back, but now there is only one. Heading towards Euro 2020, Ben Chilwell was a guaranteed starter on the left side of Southgate's defence. He is defensively sound, poses a significant attacking threat and is accustomed to playing in a 4-3-3 similar to that which England will likely employ next summer.
Playing so regularly for Leicester City took its toll, however, and his form suffered slightly. The emergence of Bukayo Saka gives England a much-needed alternative at left-back. By the summer of 2021, he could have had two full seasons in Arsenal's first team, meaning that he could even become England's first choice. His impressive performances for the Gunners – he has recorded more assists than any teammate during 2019/20 – have threatened Luke Shaw's England chances and suggest that he has a very bright future.
As one of the top nations at the tournament, England will be judged on what they do with the ball, and both Chilwell and Saka have the ability to add to England’s attacking threat. Both play a crucial role in attack for their respective clubs, under managers who set up their teams to allow their full-backs to get forwards regularly – just as Southgate does with England.
That said, there are differences in their games that – at present – tip the balance in Chilwell’s favour. He is happy to stay wide and is more of a crosser than Saka (above), who is for now more of a dribbler or runner. On the left side of attack, meanwhile, Southgate will likely select Marcus Rashford or Raheem Sterling, who can both also be classed as runners – so a combination of Chilwell and Rashford or Sterling would make England less predictable. However, the pace that Saka and Sterling could provide on one side is a frightening prospect, and another year could convince the England manager that that is the best option. He will be pleased to have a little more choice in the left-back spot.
Creativity has rarely been England’s greatest strength, but that could change in time for a tournament in the summer of 2021. England’s midfield is the part of the team most up for debate, largely because many would argue they have no truly world-class players, and it is genuinely difficult to predict who the starting trio would have been at Euro 2020. Jordan Henderson, Harry Winks, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Declan Rice, Dele Alli, Ross Barkley and Eric Dier might all realistically believe that they had a chance of selection, and three younger players in Mason Mount, James Maddison and Jack Grealish, who is yet to receive a call-up, provide a different option that could prove invaluable.
Each represents the kind of player that England have long struggled to produce: creators who look to get on the ball between the lines, shoot from distance or attempt a through ball. Of those already established, Alli is the closest to this type of player – but he is more of a second striker than a playmaker and he has never carried that burden for England. As with Christian Eriksen for Tottenham, Alli has benefited from another player taking that responsibility.
Southgate's 4-3-3 formation is similar to Pep Guardiola's; two wider central midfielders are positioned higher up the pitch than the defensive midfielder, and they offer a passing option in between the lines (above). Opponents are therefore tested over whether to defend with a narrow shape and close the spaces for those central midfielders, thereby leaving space for the wide players – where England are at their strongest – or to spread their defence wide to mark each of England’s attackers and reduce the wingers’ space.
The latter option opens spaces for the aforementioned central midfielders. If England can increase their attacking threat in those positions, which they can realistically do with a further year's preparation, they could prove contenders at a tournament that Southgate will undoubtedly have ambitions of winning.