Gareth Southgate rips up England script as ruthless Euros gamble poses key questions

When Gareth Southgate cut Harry Maguire from his Euro 2024 squad last week, the England manager not only lost one of his most trusted defenders, but his third top scorer.

Only Harry Kane and Bukayo Saka have more international goals than Maguire’s seven, which goes some way to illustrating the inexperience of Southgate’s squad, which travels to Germany on Monday.

Southgate has moved with surprising and, arguably, uncharacteristic ruthlessness to reshape England, with half of the 26 players at the World Cup 18 months ago axed and 12 of the current group going to their first major tournament.

“I think we have more than enough experience,” said Kane, who is comfortably the most capped player in the squad with 90. “Especially a lot of players who have played in two or three tournaments now.

“There are always going to be new players, players who deserve to be here, players who are in their first tournament. The lads who have played in a lot of tournaments have to step up and be there for the ones who need a bit of help.”

The question, though, is less whether England have enough leaders — Jordan Pickford, John Stones, Kyle Walker, Declan Rice and Kane all have more than a half-century of caps, and Kieran Trippier is on 48 — and more whether they can gel quickly enough as a coherent unit with so many new faces.

In Friday’s defeat by Iceland at Wembley, England played more like a collection of talented individuals than a functioning team, suggesting Southgate’s new-look side is going to the Euros as a work in progress.

New direction: Gareth Southgate has reshaped his England squad drastically for Euro 2024 (Action Images via Reuters)
New direction: Gareth Southgate has reshaped his England squad drastically for Euro 2024 (Action Images via Reuters)

It did not necessarily have to be that way for the manager, who has spent the best part of eight years building a squad to win a major finals, gradually tweaking his tactics and fine-tuning selections, only to rip out some key elements on the eve of what could be his last tournament in charge.

There is obviously a paradox in accusing Southgate of being too bold now, because the manager’s critics have long called for him to pick on form, rather than reputation.

As Southgate knows all too well, though, he can never win, so there will inevitably be suggestions that he has gone too far if his side continue to look disjointed at the finals.

It was easy to wonder on Friday night if, say, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson and Kalvin Phillips might have been worth including in the squad after all, notwithstanding miserable club form.

Rashford and Sterling, for example, have scored a combined 37 goals for England and have usually thrived running beyond Kane.

Jarrod Bowen, Eberechi Eze, Anthony Gordon and Cole Palmer, by contrast, all fully deserve to be in the squad on form, but have one international goal between them (Palmer’s penalty against Bosnia and Herzegovina last week) and are still to gel in a front four with Kane, Phil Foden and the rest.

It was perhaps no surprise that Palmer was England’s brightest player against Iceland, because he is such a brilliant individual, used to dragging a dysfunctional team through stodgy matches after his breakthrough season with Chelsea.

Kane has called for England to be judged on tournament form, while Southgate will feel the Iceland game was not a fair representation of his side, particularly as Jude Bellingham was missing and his players were, presumably, focused as much on avoiding injury as impressing.

England, though, feel less like a group at the peak of a cycle and more like a side starting a new one, leaving Southgate facing the challenge of fine-tuning his side in time for the knockouts in a few weeks’ time.

“Everyone here has earned the right to be here and has proven they deserve to be here,” said Kane, who defended the manager’s brave selections.

Everyone here has earned the right to be here and has proven they deserve it

Harry Kane on England's final Euro 2024 squad selection

“[We have] a lot of fantastic players, players who have had really good seasons. You can’t ignore that. Players at the top of their game deserve to be playing for their country.

“Being England manager is not easy, you have a lot of tough decisions, a lot of players to pick from. You can only choose 26. We have done that and I think we have a fantastic squad.

“But as always, it is about how you handle the games and the tournament, how you handle the pressure. We are going to have to deal with that in the weeks to come.”