It’s understandable if, at the start of a soccer tournament like the World Cup or the Euros, the manager of a national team doesn’t know which players make up his best eleven. After all, these teams don’t play regularly and their composition changes every time they gather for a tournament.
After three matches, though, most managers know their best eleven. And if one or two of its members are unavailable due to injury or suspension, most managers know who should replace them in the starting lineup.
But that’s not always the case. Today, Croatia’s manager, missing his best forward due to the coronavirus, started a front three all of whose members played miserably. Croatia’s only goal with that lineup came on a horrendous unforced error by Spain’s goalkeeper. No Croatian player had any involvement in the goal.
With Spain ahead 3-1, Croatia switched to an entirely different front three. The result? Two goals in the final seven minutes to tie the score and send the match into overtime. (Spain eventually won 5-3.)
The goals were scored by two of Croatia’s substitutes, one of whom assisted on the other’s goal.
Does England’s manager Gareth Southgate know his best eleven as he heads into tomorrow’s match against Germany? I suspect he does, but we’ll see.
In my view, most of the team pretty much selects itself. Everton’s Jordan Pickford in goal. A back four of Kyle Walker, Luke Shaw, Harry McGuire, and John Stones (although Tyrone Mings played very well when McGuire was out with an injury). In central midfield I think it should be Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, but one can make a case for a fit-again Jordan Henderson instead of Phillips.
Harry Kane should keep his place at center forward. Yes, he’s struggled in this tournament, but he’s England’s best player, and showed signs of revival in the last match. Rahim Sterling, scorer of two goals so far, should hold down one of the two wide positions up front.
The question marks pertain to the other wide position and the advanced spot in the midfield three. Jack Grealish is the popular choice to play alongside Kane and Sterling. Grealish is a dazzling player, full of flair and coming off an outstanding season for Aston Villa. He did well in his only Euros start.
England has a long tradition of underutilizing flair players. Bucking that tradition has usually produced a degree of success, most notably with Paul Gascoigne at the 1990 World Cup and Euro 1996.
But playing Grealish in a wide position tomorrow against Germany strikes me as the wrong move. Germany’s best attacks have come down the flanks from their excellent wing-backs, Joshua Kimmich and Robin Gosens. England’s wide front-men will be called on to defend against that threat. Defending isn’t Grealish’s forte.
A better choice, in my view, would be Bukayo Saka. Before the tournament, I wouldn’t even have thought of the 19 year-old for the starting 11. But he was outstanding against the Czech Republic in England’s last match.
What makes Saka so well-suited for the Germany match is that he’s a natural wing-back, as comfortable in defense as in attack. I believe he has even played left back for Arsenal.
As a two way player, Saka seems like the best option for countering a star wing-back — through his defensive ability and because of the attacking threat the speedster poses.
This leaves one open position, advanced midfielder. Ordinarily, I think Mason Mount would be the obvious choice. But the Chelsea man has had to practice alone due to coronavirus concerns. A hug from an infected Billy Gilmour, Mount’s Chelsea teammate, before the England-Scotland match forced Mount into covid protocols even though he never tested positive for the virus.
Mount is now available to rejoin his teammates. However, it seems too risky to start a player who has been unable to work with the team in preparation for the Germany match.
Southgate could play Grealish in place of Mount. He would be less exposed defensively in that role.
Alternatively, he could reintroduce Phil Foden. The Manchester City star was largely ineffective in his prior appearances, in which he played wide. However, he’s an immense talent and prefers to play centrally. Although Foden is only 21, he has plenty of big match experience and the big occasion rarely has been too much for him. I lean towards Foden, with Grealish available as a super-sub.
A third possibility is Henderson alongside Phillips and Rice. That would be the conservative choice, and probably not a bad one. But I’d prefer a bolder approach.
Finally, Southgate could switch formations, going with three center backs as he did with good success at the last World Cup. Walker could push in alongside McGuire and Stones, with Kevin Trippier or Reece James playing right wing back. This would eliminate the third midfield position.
I don’t favor changing formations, though. England hasn’t set the tournament on fire, but it has played well enough to stay with its 4-3-3 setup.
Changing formations this late in the tournament can make for trouble. Just ask French coach Didier Deschamps who, due to player injuries, switched to three center backs for today’s match against Switzerland. France played poorly in that formation and eventually lost to Switzerland on penalty kicks in a monumental upset.
Playing Germany is hard enough without using a relatively unfamiliar formation. I say stick with the 4-3-3 and within that structure make aggressive selections tailored to deal with Germany.