Gareth Southgate Jack Grealish England Euro 2020 GFXGetty/Goal

Southgate's Grealish dilemma: How England will line up at Euro 2020

What an eerie feeling it is to see an England team so united, so talented, and led so admirably by their manager.

Even stranger that the feel-good vibes of 2018 still hover over the fan base and that England deserve their status as second favourites to win a European Championship that, with potentially six of seven games at Wembley, will play out largely on home soil.
England supporters are not used to this mix of legitimate optimism and genuine pride in the squad they will be supporting this summer. 

And yet the giddy atmosphere heading into Euro 2020 and the heartfelt affection for Gareth Southgate is more precarious than it seems. 

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This is still the pre-tournament bubble and the post-World Cup glow. There is a looming threat of disaster, fraction, hostility.

The rose-tinted idea that the nation itself was united in support of the England team has already been shattered by the minority of supporters that booed their own players taking the knee in both of the warm-up games. 

A fierce polarisation, another front in the culture wars, a racist undercurrent: it has been a stark reminder that toxicity, both in the media and among fans, still lingers.

It is also a reminder that it won’t take much for some supporters to turn against this team and its manager, and on the field that dividing line will be Southgate’s tactical approach. 

Will his conservative and defensive instincts hold back a considerably more talented squad than the 2018 crop? 

Will he loosen the reins over the course of the tournament as demands for attacking football reach fever pitch? 

Or does Southgate’s Didier Deschamps-like fear of opening up provide England with the perfect foundation to go all the way?

Southgate’s probable tactics and line-up

Southgate will most likely plump for the 3-4-3 against Croatia to provide greater defensive cover against the strongest opponent in Group D, with Kyle Walker among the centre-backs. 

In central midfield, Southgate may go for two holding players in Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice, although it is plausible he will start Jude Bellingham or Mason Mount to create a little bit more fluidity in the middle.

But it won’t be the free-flowing attacking football many fans crave. There is simply no evidence that Southgate is willing to take that risk this summer, and instead England will probably rely on creativity from Harry Kane, Phil Foden, and Raheem Sterling. 

Then again, Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho, and Marcus Rashford could all start; there are a lot of unknowns on the eve of the tournament.

England v Croatia line-up Euro 2020 GFXGoal

Southgate is expected to rotate heavily through the groups stages to help his exhausted squad, and although there will be between six and seven outright defensive players on the field against Croatia, that balance will shift as England move to a more assertive 4-2-3-1 for the final two games of the group. 

This is when the likes of Grealish, Sancho, Bellingham, and Bukayo Saka may get a run-out, with a couple of changes at the back also plausible. 

Why Southgate’s caution might work

Although some worry that Southgate’s defensive instincts – so effective with a below-par squad in 2018 – are no longer suited to England’s superb young attack, there is reason to believe it is the correct approach. 

Deschamps possesses the most talented squad in international football and yet his similarly closed-off approach has proved to be the right way to win a tournament. 

With so little time to coach tactics or for the players to get to know each other, attempts to play expansive and progressive football rarely work.

It requires elite coaching, hard pressing, and sophisticated positional play to pull off the brave attacking football we see at club level from the likes of Manchester City. 

England v Scotland line-up Euro 2020 GFXGoal

Even if Southgate possessed the same skills as Pep Guardiola, there is simply no time to coach them, while it is highly unlikely England’s fatigued players could cover the wide-open spaces as required when utilising an attacking system. 

After all, even Guardiola calmed things down in the pandemic-hit 2020-21, playing a more patient possession game that prioritised defensive solidity over flair. That is the way to win Euro 2020.

But could prove his downfall...

However, the public mood could sour if England struggle to pick up positive results in the group stages while deploying a more defensive formation and line-up. 

There has been a clamour in recent months to integrate more of England’s attacking players into the team, with many onlookers hoping for a 4-3-3 crammed with the more explosive options.

England attacking line-up Euro 2020 GFXGoal

One of the unspoken worries of the tournament ahead is a difficult-looking last 16 game likely to be against Germany, France, or Portugal. 

If England look laboured in the group stages or go out in the second round without having given many minutes to fans’ favourites Grealish, then Southgate will suddenly be under significant pressure.

It doesn’t matter if his approach is right or wrong for international football. If England fall short, then the easy narrative will be to declare he was not courageous enough and is not the right person to make the most of England’s new golden generation. 

Frank Lampard, renowned for working with young English players and for playing gung-ho attacking football, would be available. 

It is not inconceivable that supporters and the media will call for a change unless Southgate takes England deep into the tournament – and in style. 

This summer has already taught us the England fan base still retains a nasty, toxic streak. Too much caution, too few attackers on the pitch, and the love for Southgate could rapidly diminish.