Constant Flux: the difficulty of planning for the future in international football

Cast Iron Tactics
5 min readJul 6, 2020
How many of these players are in the starting XI in the first game of Euro 2020(1?)?

The Athletic released an article earlier today suggesting that England manager Gareth Southgate was considering the inclusion of Dean Henderson, Bukayo Saka, Mason Greenwood, and Phil Foden in his squad for the next set of international fixtures, and it made me think about the 2018 World Cup squad.

At the time, Southgate was praised for putting faith in younger players and the general consensus was that it was a squad that would grow together over the next few tournaments.

But if you were to pick a squad for Euro 2020 based on this season, I think it’s surprising how few of the 2018 members would actually get into it.

Veteran players like Jamie Vardy, Ashley Young, and Gary Cahill were always going to get phased out quickly, and the same could be said for fringe players who only just got into the squad in the first place, like Fabian Delph, Phil Jones, and Danny Welbeck.

But look at the rest of it: you’d have maybe one of Kyle Walker or Kieran Trippier in there, but not both, and arguably neither of them. No way do Jack Butland, Danny Rose, or Jesse Lingard get selected. Neither does Ruben Loftus-Cheek (although that’s harsh because he’s been injured). Dele Alli and Eric Dier are marginal calls who probably sneak in but are squad filler at best at this point. Even if you include those last three, that’s still half of the squad gone in the space of two years.

And it’s easy to see how that might cause problems on and off the pitch. This England squad was praised for its unity and its harmony and its open relationship with the media — all things that have blighted previous tournament squads. The bedrocks of that harmony and the players Southgate was relying on to be the core of his future teams — Kyle Walker, Eric Dier, John Stones, Kieran Trippier — are going to find themselves either not playing or not selected. The previously undisputed number one, Jordan Pickford, has suddenly looked vulnerable and might be usurped. Depending on the severity of this knee injury he’s just picked up, Jordan Henderson could be on the outside too.

With Lingard and Young definitely not in the picture, that’s potentially three quarters of the team that started the semi-final against Croatia gone by the next tournament. It wouldn’t be surprising to see some discord set in amongst those marginalised players if they suddenly find themselves benched. Southgate will have to manage that situation delicately, or else start from scratch and forge an entirely new environment with his newer players.

It’s amazing how much churn there has been and how quickly some of our younger players have emerged onto the scene. What’s equally surprising is that it’s not really a case of the younger players he took a punt on failing to develop — it’s the players in the 24–30 age bracket from that squad (who you’d expect to be the foundation of your team for the next few tournaments) who have failed to sustain their form or have been surpassed by talented younger players. It highlights how tough it is to plan for the future as an international manager, even if you’ve got quality players in the youth teams, because you can’t account for their rate of development at club level.

If you were picking a squad for the tournament based on the current season, there are pretty easy decisions across the board to replace the players who have dropped out, I think:

  • Jack Butland — Dean Henderson. Tom Heaton maybe if you wanted an experienced head.
  • Phil Jones — Joe Gomez
  • Kyle Walker/Kieran Trippier — Aaron Wan-Bissaka would probably get the nod if you’re only dropping one of them. If both, I’d probably go with TAA/AWB as my choices and allocate this squad space elsewhere. Wouldn’t be a complete shock to see Reece James elbow his way into contention for this next season though.
  • Danny Rose — Ben Chilwell
  • Ashley Young — I’d pick Bukayo Saka, as he could do a bit of a Swiss Army knife role for the squad like Ashley Young did. If Southgate goes for a more conventional LB option, it’ll presumably be Luke Shaw, who seems to have regained his status as first choice at Old Trafford.
  • Gary Cahill — Seeing as Southgate has largely moved on from playing 3 at the back, I don’t think we’d need to pick another specialist CB in the squad, so this slot would go to Declan Rice as a secondary holding midfielder who can act as an extra central defender if needs be.
  • Fabian Delph — different profile of player, but based on recent squads and his performances in qualifying, Ross Barkley probably gets picked here. Not someone I’m wildly keen on but Southgate appears to rate him. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has also previously been a favourite of Southgate’s, and could do a more energetic box-to-box role akin to Delph, but it’s uncertain whether he’ll get enough minutes at Liverpool to get selected.
  • Ruben Loftus-Cheek — the token “exciting younger player who gets a surprise inclusion” has been a classic ingredient in the England tournament squad recipe for a long time now. Seems like this would be Phil Foden’s place, although there’s a case to be made for Jack Grealish and James Maddison. RLC himself could reclaim his spot, and he has been gradually reintroduced to first team football since the resumption, but it feels a little bit like he’s been bypassed by other players at Chelsea. If they go out and sign Havertz as well this summer, he drops even further down the pecking order.
  • Jesse Lingard — Mason Mount. Similarly positionally versatile. Hard working presser. Shooter not a passer. Seems a pretty natural upgrade to make.
  • Danny Welbeck — Jadon Sancho. Unlucky for Welé as he’s always performed well in an England shirt, but those injuries have just caught up with him. Sancho is so good already that he’s pretty much secured his spot in the starting XI at this point. If he moves to England over the summer, that’s even further cemented.
  • Jamie Vardy — Danny Ings. Impossible not to give Ings a shot after the season he’s had. Potential shouts for Callum Wilson and Tammy Abraham for this secondary centre forward role, but neither of them have set the world on fire lately. If Southgate decides against reallocating that 3rd RB slot to bring in another forward player, maybe this is where you take a punt on someone like Mason Greenwood.

Football changes quickly though, as we’ve seen, so it’ll be interesting to revisit this next year before the tournament starts and see how poorly these impressions have dated.

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Cast Iron Tactics

I write long, boring, and increasingly deranged articles about football tactics and West Ham @CastIronTactics on Twitter