The international break was a successful one for England as they began their Euro 2024 qualification with two victories over Italy and Ukraine. After a disappointing quarter-final exit to France at the World Cup, Gareth Southgate knew that it was important to start their European Championships qualifiers with two dominant performances and that’s exactly what happened.
Harry Kane became England’s all-time record goal scorer as England earned Euro 2020 final revenge over Italy in Naples as he and Declan Rice scored in their 2-1 victory over Italy. Kane followed up that record-breaking feat by scoring his 55th goal for England in a 2-0 win over Ukraine at Wembley Stadium which also saw Bukayo Saka score an incredible goal from outside the box.
However dominating a qualifying campaign in order to qualify for the European championships in 2024 isn’t going to silence Gareth Southgate’s critics quickly. After all, Southgate nearly quit the job after the World Cup, having failed to better England’s semi-final performance in 2018. The real test will come in Germany in 2024, where England are expected to win the title and bring silverware to England for the first time since the World Cup in 1966.
There is no mistake about it, Southgate will be judged on how England fare in Germany next year with the last two years being about gradual progress and competing amongst the best teams in the world. The England manager has achieved that by galvanising the country and developing a culture both on and off the pitch that makes this team engaging to watch.
The personalities are among some of the most likeable in England’s history which has helped win back the support of the fans, but that will only take Southgate so far as now he will be judged on next year’s European Championships. This international break was supposedly meant to be the start of a new page in the book of Southgate but the England manager’s squad selection showed that it was anything but a new beginning.
The same ageing players such as Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson, Harry Maguire, Jordan Pickford and John Stones were picked ahead of in-form and younger players. Although the likes of James Maddison and Ivan Toney were picked, the majority of the selection showed that Southgate has his favourites. This was also summed up by the fact that Southgate claimed that elite players that play in the Premier League are running out while the likes of Fikayo Tomori, who plays for AC Milan, are still getting overlooked.
Southgate now faces a future dilemma whether to live by the sword and die by the sword by sticking with the same group that has earned him the success he has gained so far or to gradually introduce some new and younger players that can give him the energy required to elevate England to the next phase in Germany in 2024.
As Daniel Storey points out by the time the European championships comes around 40% of Southgate’s current selection will be 30 or over. This is a risky strategy for Southgate with so much on the line at the next major tournament for Southgate with his job on the line.
In summary, this has been a positive start on the pitch for Southgate’s bid to install a winning mentality to this England side. However bigger issues still remain at hand for Southgate with pressure now on him to inject some youth and exciting talent into this team ahead of 2024. These qualifiers should be used to not only gradually experiment with new talent but also to find out what his best starting XI should be.
Now is the perfect opportunity to do this otherwise Southgate’s plan to have continued faith in what is an ageing spine of the squad could have more risk than reward. Next for England are two more qualifying games in the summer away to Malta and at home to North Macedonia. These games are the perfect opportunity to introduce new talent to the squad in very winnable matches.
The feeling is although the battle on the pitch won’t be won until the European Championships, Southgate’s battle off the pitch in terms of dealing with the critics will be won or lost this summer depending on what squad he decides to select for June’s qualifiers.
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