Following his roller-coaster of a campaign in the 2018 World Cup, Gareth Southgate will be eager to build on the new-found positivity surrounding England's national team this summer. Although his youthful squad performed admirably two years ago, a lot has changed since England's exit to Croatia in the semi-finals, and Southgate will already be contemplating which 23 players he'll want joining him on the plane in just a few months time.
The headache for the manager is to determine how experienced he wants his lions to be. On the one hand, assembling a group of young, budding players could give the squad the experience they need in future major tournaments, thus preparing them for the next World Cup adventure. However, Southgate may feel that some more seasoned players will be needed for added stability and dressing room experience. Based on England's shape during the comfortable 0-4 and 7-0 wins against Kosovo and Montenegro respectively, it is probable that Southgate will deploy a 4-3-3 formation during the Euros.
Therefore, assuming England shape up in this way and nobody is on the injury list by June, I have selected the 23 players I believe Southgate should be on the phone to this summer.
Jordan Pickford (Everton), Nick Pope (Burnley), Dean Henderson (Sheffield United)
After a tournament to remember in Russia, Jordan Pickford has established himself as the No. 1 keeper both internationally and domestically. Although his form has been patchy at times for Everton, his ability to make match-winning saves at crucial moments makes him a must-have between the sticks.
Both Nick Pope and Dean Henderson would act as capable deputies in case of injury or suspension. Although Pope's experience would give him a slight edge over the Sheffield United keeper as No. 2, Henderson has been impressive this season during his loan spell away from Old Trafford. As goalkeepers are rarely rotated at major tournaments, this would be a perfect opportunity to nurture the two young shot-stoppers, as it would give them an opportunity to experience the dressing room before the World Cup in 2022.
Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool) Kieran Tripper (Spurs), Ben Chilwell (Leicester City), Danny Rose (Spurs)
Staking his claim as the best fullback in the world right now, Trent Alexander-Arnold is a certainty at right back. Due to England's lack of creativity in midfield during the World Cup, England should look to the Scouser to push forward and create chances from wide areas. Fullbacks have become an integral part of the modern game and fortunately England are blessed with options at right back: Trippier has flourished in his new environment with Athletico Madrid; Walker still remains a very solid option at Manchester City; and Wan-Bissaka's stock has risen after building on his breakout season of 2018/19 with Crystal Palace.
However, it's Kieran Tripper that gets my vote as Trent's deputy. Although both Walker and Wan-Bissaka are stronger defensively, their ability to consistently deliver accurate crosses in advanced areas is often lacking, certainly in comparison to Athletico Madrid's fullback.
Trippier has averaged 1.9 key passes in the last 10 games for Diego Simeone's side and has already matched his assist total for last year's campaign with Tottenham. If Alexander-Arnold were to get injured or suspended during the Euros, Trippier would be far more likely than any other to match his playmaking ability.
At left back, Southgate's decision is perhaps easier to make. With the season he's had so far at Leicester, Ben Chilwell must board the plane as England's first choice, followed by Danny Rose who, despite not being the player he once was, has accumulated lots of experience at major tournaments over the years. Rose's greatest quality is that he'd offer some stability and know-how to what would be yet another youthful and inexperienced squad.
Some may be tempted to call up Luke Shaw to deputise Chilwell, but with a career of being in and out of the England side due to injury, and failing to establish a consistent first team place with Manchester United this season, Danny Rose seems to be the safer bet.
Harry Maguire (Manchester United), Joe Gomez (Liverpool), John Stones (Manchester City), Mason Holgate (Everton)
Harry Maguire's exceptional tournament in Russia helped to establish him as one of England's strongest options at centre-half. Although he would have wished for a better debut season with Manchester United, he is still playing well enough to start for the Three Lions and the Euros.
Despite starting every game for Southgate in the 2018 World Cup, John Stones has fallen down the pecking order. With his pace and strength at the back, Joe Gomez should be starting alongside Maguire, forcing Stones to the bench as a capable replacement. In what could be a record breaking season with Liverpool, Gomez has flourished next to Virgil Van Dijk and looks like an exciting option for England in the future.
England's fourth choice at centre back may give Southgate more of a headache. Firstly, after another great season captaining Wolves, Connor Coady will feel as though he deserves some serious consideration. If the manager is looking for a little more experience, England could opt for Chris Smalling, who has found a new lease of life during his loan spell in Rome.
However, in the last two months since Marco Silva's departure from Merseyside, Mason Holgate has been very impressive for Duncan Ferguson and Carlo Ancelotti. He has been central in improving Everton's defense issues and arguably has a higher ceiling than any of the aforementioned; this competition would be a perfect opportunity to give Holgate some serious international experience.
One final positive for taking Gomez and Holgate is that they are both adaptable enough to cover the right back position. Should England require more defensive security, and decide against the more attacking options of Alexander-Arnold or Trippier at any point during the competition, the Merseyside pair could offer important flexibility for Southgate if called upon.
Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), James Maddison (Leicester City), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Liverpool), Dele Alli (Spurs), Declan Rice (West Ham), Harry Winks (Spurs)
Southgate should look to take a leaf out of Jurgen Klopp's playbook in order to get the best out of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ben Chilwell. If he stacks England's midfield with hard-working and defensively secure central midfielders, Southgate could instruct the fullbacks to advance into more creative areas and inform the engines in midfield to cover for them.
Not only should Jordan Henderson go as England captain, but he's also the most reliable midfielder in Southgate's arsenal. Likely destined to lift the Premier League trophy in May, Henderson has had a phenomenal season at Anfield. Personally, I would like to see his teammate, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, sit next to him on the plane; his dynamism and mobility in the centre of the park would bring a lot of energy in midfield, provided he remains fit and healthy.
In defensive midfield, Southgate will be scratching his head over whether to take Rice or Dier as cover for Henderson at the base of midfield. Dier has seemed lethargic at times this year and has often given the ball away in important areas. For me, the expectation of him remaining in an England shirt is fading fast and he has a lot to do between now and May to earn my vote of confidence.
But Declan Rice, although not currently the finished product, is still only 21 and has played well under Southgate in his 7 international appearances so far. Defensive midfield is a position England have struggled to fill with talent for many years and giving Rice the tournament experience to mould into this role may make him ready for the World Cup in 2022.
As for creativity, James Maddison has been at the heart of Leicester's successful campaign so far this season. He has proved that he is an intelligent midfielder, able to break the lines with final passes and deliver dangerous crosses from set piece situations.
Dele Alli was an important part of Southgate's journey in Russia, yet has perhaps fallen out of favour in recent years. In my opinion, he could be used as an excellent impact player off the bench. If trailing in a game, Alli's eye for goal could be useful in scoring equalisers or sparking comebacks.
And finally, after weighing up the exploits and drawbacks between Mount and Winks for some time, I've decided that Harry Winks just about wins the race in a photo finish. Although Mason Mount's breakout year at Chelsea has raised many eyebrows, Winks' ability to take over games on the creative end would be indispensable off the bench, especially if Maddison were to get injured. Although Winks needs to work on his consistency to gain a secure place among Southgate's starters, his intricate footwork and retention of the ball as a deep-lying playmaker can be unplayable at times as part of a midfield three. Mount may have to spend a couple more years at home before he's fully ready to tackle a major international competition.
Jadon Sancho (Dortmund), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Jack Grealish (Aston Villa)
As England's chief jewel of the future, Jadon Sancho's position in Southgate's squad is unquestionable. At still only 19 years of age, and boasting stats that outshine any other attacker (11 goals and 11 assists so far in 17 Bundesliga matches), Dortmund's prospect should start as one of Southgate's front three.
The other stalwart to appear in both Southgate's squad and starting lineup should be Raheem Sterling. After continuing to grow under Pep Guardiola since the last World Cup, Sterling has improved both his final delivery and finishing, establishing himself as one of the very best in the Premier League. If Liverpool continue their form this year and condemn Sterling to nothing more than a Champions League place, England fans will hope the Manchester City star joins the Three Lions hungry and ravenous for silverware.
Playing as predominantly a winger under Solskjaer this season, Marcus Rashford has broken many personal records this season, most notably in responding to those who claimed he was not a natural born goalscorer; after selling Lukaku in the summer, Graeme Souness stated on SkySports that 'he's not scored enough goals in the Premier League' to be considered Manchester United's main man. This season, Rashford has posted his best numbers in front of goal, scoring 14 goals in 22 appearances to silence the doubters. Naturally, Southgate should be pleased that Rashford hit a good spell of form and pray that he continues this when he's back from injury in March.
Finally, since moved by Dean Smith to the left wing position, Jack Grealish has been a talisman for Aston Villa. He's been given the freedom in the wide role to stay forward, create more chances and score more goals. As Southgate's squad is likely to be dominated by players from the top six sides who struggle to hog the limelight at times, Grealish offers a fantastic alternative: a player who is under pressure and scrutiny every game to play at the highest level and rescue the team. This quality, combined with the scintillating form he's in, gives Grealish the edge ahead of his competitors.
Harry Kane (Spurs), Tammy Abraham (Chelsea)
With Jamie Vardy having retired from international football, and Rashford being selected as a winger in this squad, it's hard to look past Harry Kane and Tammy Abraham as the out-and-out strikers to play at the Euros. Kane left Russia as the top scorer in the World Cup; the manager will be reliant on his goal-scoring and leadership once again this summer.
Abraham, however, is the perfect replacement for Kane. Spurs' striker may be struggling for fitness after coming back from injury and could fail to last the full 90 minutes during the early stages of the competition. Fortunately for Southgate, the Chelsea forward would be a solid impact player, whether winning or losing in a game; he offers both the pace and strength needed for counter attacks and the aerial prowess to score headed goals if a desperate 'route one' tactic is required.
Do you agree with Back Four's picks for the summer? Comment your thoughts below!