Gareth Southgate’s England kick off their Euro 2021 campaign in less than four months, with the group stage pitting the Three Lions against Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic.
This squad has been lauded as potentially the greatest in years, a golden generation, meaning this presents a harder task than ever to whittle them down to just 23 men.
With the competition fierce, who is set to make the cut as it stands?
Pickford’s struggles at Everton have been well documented but, in his defence, he has never let his international team down and has a World Cup penalty shootout win to his name.
Nick Pope is another obvious choice and would-be England’s No.1 had it not been for Pickford’s impressive performances under Southgate in recent years.
The third spot goes to Dean Henderson, who many had suggested would be in the first XI this time last year. Henderson enjoyed a terrific loan spell at Sheffield United but returned to Manchester United this season, where he’s been largely limited to cup football.
Fortunately for him, the likes of Karl Darlow and Alex McCarthy haven’t done enough to take his place.
The key to this selection was the versality to play either four or five defenders depending on the difficulty of the opposition. A slight concern is that eight defenders doesn’t provide enough cover for a five-man defence but adding one more would mean leaving out an attacking player far more deserving.
Trent Alexander-Arnold is undergoing a poor season by his standards and the absence of Vigil Van Dijk from the Liverpool rearguard has highlighted his sub-par defensive attributes that were previously masked.
Reece James is the first choice right-back as it stands but Thomas Tuchel’s arrival at Chelsea has seen Callum Hudson-Odoi employed in his position. If this continues for the remainder of the season, Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s name could enter the fray.
Kyle Walker makes the squad as either a right-back or, most likely, on the right of a back three, where he can cover for the lack of pace of Harry Maguire. Maguire gets somewhat unwarranted criticism for his performances due to the £80 million price tag and the fact he wears the captain’s armband. Neither of those factors should apply to the defender on international duty and he looks twice the player when surrounded by pace.
John Stones is having a remarkable campaign for Manchester City, eliminating the costly mistakes that haunted him in the past. The question will be how much of his renaissance is down to team-mate Ruben Dias rather than his personal development.
Luke Shaw has taken the starting place from Ben Chilwell, who, like Reece James, has fallen out of Chelsea’s side since the departure of Frank Lampard. Shaw has been excellent, and Chilwell provides solid back-up with no real competition from any other left-back possibility.
Michael Keane beat competition from a number of players to earn the final spot, including Ben Godfrey and Mason Holgate on the same team. However, Keane gets the nod for his experience at both Premier League and international level. Lewis Dunk is worthy of a mention, but it seems far-fetched to pick a defender from a relegation-battling side.
With so much attacking talent at Southgate’s disposal it will be interesting to see if he sticks with two holding midfielders. In games such as the one against Scotland it would make sense to employ either Declan Rice or Jordan Henderson alongside a more expansive player like Mason Mount.
Rice and Henderson only face competition from Leeds’s Kalvin Phillips, so this made for a rather simple choice. Henderson is reportedly out for 12 weeks with a groin injury but that still leaves just enough time to regain fitness before the tournament.
James Ward-Prowse could be a surprise inclusion, offering Southgate the possibility to switch to a hard-working three-man midfield.
Jack Grealish can either play as a No.10 or on the left but has to be on the pitch in one way or another. Aston Villa’s talisman is truly world-class, carrying a team in the hunt for European football that would no doubt be in the bottom half in his absence.
Elsewhere, Mount has now become a favourite of Frank Lampard, Gareth Southgate and Thomas Tuchel in the space of two seasons.
There could be a toss up to take place between Phil Foden and James Maddison in terms of the final spot. With neither likely to start, the Man City man may get the nod because he is more used to playing cameo roles to try to change games from the bench.
These are the six players whose goals England fans will be hoping to celebrate later this year. Speed demons either side of one of the world’s elite strikers, this attack should wreak havoc on the best defences in world football.
Harry Kane is arguably the most complete centre-forward on the planet, a clinical goal scorer with the vision and technique to pick out any forward run. If Kane can link-up with any one of England’s forward options as well as he does with Son Heung-Min for Spurs, the Three Lions are in for a successful summer.
With that no-contest out of the way, the battle of the back-up striker is England’s most contentious. One must wonder if Jamie Vardy will be kicking himself knowing that he’d claim that spot if not for his retirement from international football.
Regardless, Patrick Bamford, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Danny Ings are all at the top of their game and have a case to be in the 23. Bamford gets the nod here as he has the movement and potential to interchange with the other forwards, which presents an exciting threat that the more poacher-type strikers of Ings and Calvert-Lewin don’t offer.
Marcus Rashford is having an under-the-radar season of an extremely high calibre, along with Jadon Sancho, who started slowly with Borussia Dortmund after a failed transfer to Manchester United. Sancho’s inclusion was never in doubt but now that he’s rediscovered his form there is a case to be made for him to start.