Time is fast running out for Gareth Southgate to decide on his best line-up and his best system ahead of next summer’s European Championship.
Sunday’s defeat by Belgium has rendered this Wednesday’s Nations League game against Iceland little more than a meaningless friendly.
After that, England will have just three World Cup qualifiers in March plus perhaps a pre-tournament friendly or two for Southgate to get everything spot on.
But it’s clear there are still plenty of puzzles for the England manager to solve if there’s any chance of England challenging in a tournament which sees them have home advantage for the most part.
They still seem to come up short against the strongest teams and this is something that quickly needs to be addressed if they’re to end the long wait for silverware.
We asked our reporters for the team they would pick for England’s Euro 2020 opener against Croatia on June 13 next year and also to assess their chances of going all the way.
(4-3-3): Pope; Alexander-Arnold, Dier, Gomez, Chilwell; Henderson, Rice, Mount; Sterling, Kane, Grealish
Not a lot between the keepers but Pope calmer and more authoritative, overall less prone to errors than Pickford and playing more football than Henderson.
Gomez if he’s fit in central defence to balance Dier’s aggression and defensive instinct with pace. Dier, excelling under Mourinho, edges Maguire at the moment. Mings on current form if Gomez isn’t fit.
Fullbacks who can attack and produce crosses. Rice to shield the back four. Leadership and legs from Henderson. Vision and craft from Mount, or it could easily be Foden.
Kane and Sterling must play. Grealish on form although there will be games when Rashford’s directness and goal threat might be more appropriate.
CAN THEY WIN IT?
If the stars align there’s a chance. With key players fit, in form and Kane in the goals. There are plenty of options in attack and from the bench.
There are soft spots in the squad – defensive midfield, left-back, centre-half – where vulnerable if certain players are absent. Southgate has proved he can generate spirit and desire in the group when together for a tournament.
They have the experience of Russia behind them. Home advantage will help if that transpires. But there are better, stronger and more talented teams in European international football, including Belgium.
(4-3-3) Pope; Alexander-Arnold, Tarkowski, Maguire, Chilwell; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Henderson, Grealish; Rashford, Kane, Sterling
The challenge is how to get the galaxy of attacking players into the side.
Grealish has to start. There are so many identikit players of a similar ilk in Southgate’s ranks but Grealish has proved again that he brings the imagination and something different. He transcends the Southgate template.
The crisis resides at the back, where England lack defenders who can actually defend. This is always England’s undoing when the tough opposition materialises.
Get Tarkowski playing there at the first opportunity. And let’s have a properly robust four-man defence please. And Pope, not Pickford, as goalkeeper – every day of the week.
(3-5-2): D Henderson; Walker, Stones, Maguire; Alexander-Arnold, Sterling, J Henderson, Grealish, Maitland-Niles; Kane, Rashford
Same system, 3-5-2 that worked well at the World Cup. There isn’t a winger that crosses the ball better than Trent Alexander-Arnold anyway.
Hopefully Dean Henderson and John Stones get a bit of a game-time between now and the summer, I’d recommend loans for the pair of them because in terms of talent, they are the best available in their positions.
The other contentious pick is Ainsley Maitland-Niles given that Ben Chilwell is playing so well. I just feel the Arsenal man gives a bit of physical oomph to an attacking team with so many skillful players.
CAN THEY WIN IT?
Of course England can win it with a fair wind. There are a few very good teams with plenty of match-winners; France, Belgium, Germany, Holland etc.
But winning the Euros is not like the World Cup, Denmark and Greece have been European champions and wouldn’t have come anywhere close to the World Cup so with home advantage and a team packed with Champions League pedigree, no reason England can’t give it a go.
It’ll come down to small margins as usual, a penalty shoot-out, bit of magic or refereeing decisions. But certainly in the mix.
(4-2-3-1): Pope; Alexander-Arnold, Gomez, Maguire, Chilwell; Henderson, Rice; Sancho, Grealish, Sterling; Kane
Jack Grealish seems to have played his way into the side and moving him ahead of two more natural central midfielders feels like the best way to accommodate the Aston Villa man.
A midfield two offers more balance and becomes a four when the two attacking full backs push up when England have possession.
Jadon Sancho marginally over Marcus Rashford merely as a positional call off the right. Nick Pope is the best goalkeeper in the country.
CAN THEY WIN IT?
Yes they can but no, they won’t.
There are too many question marks over personnel and systems. I doubt there is a standout starting XI in a perfect shape on this page because nobody, Gareth Southgate included, seems to know how to engineer the best out of this group of players.
The 4-2-3-1 above feels too rigid but they’re bereft of dynamism in midfield to consistently excel in a different shape. Central defence obviously a huge issue, too, and simply do not have the resources and depth to persist with three at the back.
(4-2-3-1) Pope; James, Maguire, Mings, Chilwell; Rice, Winks; Sterling, Grealish, Sancho/Rashford; Kane
I’d change formation and revert to a back four as the switch to a back three has not really worked, certainly not going forward.
Having one less centre-back also means an extra attacker can be squeezed in to play around Harry Kane.
Nick Pope is better than Jordan Pickford at what a goalkeeper is there to do – keep the ball out of the net – and much more dominant.
Of all England’s right-back options, Reece James looks like the perfect blend with his ability at both ends.
Jack Grealish’s style, comfort on the ball and the way he relishes big occasions earns him a place in a tournament team.
In central midfield, Jordan Henderson is too safe in possession and England’s improvement against Belgium once Harry Winks came on was further evidence England need more of a progressive passer alongside Declan Rice.
(4-3-3) Pope; Alexander-Arnold, Maguire, Mings, Chilwell; Henderson, Mount, Grealish; Sancho, Kane, Sterling
The chances of this being England’s starting XI against Croatia? Between zero and nil. At the rate they’re picking up injuries, David Batty may be in line for a recall. But anyway…
Southgate’s logic behind the 3-4-3 is sound but I fear it robs England of more strengths than weaknesses it covers up.
Two centre backs or three, there has been nothing to suggest England’s defence will win them the Euros. So build a side that allows their attacking weapons to flourish.
Jordan Pickford is due a few more wobbles, while Joe Gomez plays if he is fit. On the right it’s a toss-up between Trent Alexander-Arnold and Reece James.
In midfield, playing both Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson provides (more) stability but stunts England’s creativity. Mason Mount’s intelligence with and without the ball is underrated, while Jack Grealish (or Phil Foden) could be the creative engine.
The front three should score, whatever combination you pick. It’s an XI of pace and technical brilliance. Vulnerable, perhaps, but when are England anything but?
CAN THEY WIN IT?
Yes – England have the attacking quality to hurt any team, while they are now more of a technical match for Europe’s best. If they don’t succeed, you assume the other end will be their undoing.
The issue Southgate has is striking a balance between making England more solid and rendering them toothless going forward. In recent games, you’d argue the defensive improvements have not matched the blunting of England’s attacking threat.
Defences tend to win tournaments and France’s 2018 side were hardly the swashbuckling side they appeared on paper. I’m just concerned England have neither the personnel, nor the time, to match Europe’s most defensively savvy sides.
In which case, they must play to their strengths going forward. Even then, though, the golden question remains: do England boast the best team or coach in Europe?
The answer is arguably no on both counts. They certainly can beat Belgium, France, Germany and Co… but would you back them to?