Knocking on woodwork: England’s road to Wembley at Euro 2020

Photo of English soccer team
Anton Zaitsev/Creative Commons

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As he approaches his second major tournament as England’s manager, Gareth Southgate must be chomping at the bit to get started. Southgate, who led the Three Lions to the semifinal of the 2018 World Cup in his first major tournament at the helm, has one of the most talented squads of recent memory at his disposal. And yet, expectations remain surprisingly low.

With that in mind, here are some predictions of England’s chances in the coming weeks, as well as my biggest concerns and most interesting storylines to follow starting this Sunday against Croatia.

Group D

England is the clear favorite in this group. The Three Lions are currently ranked No. 4 in the FIFA World Rankings. The team’s three opponents — Croatia (No. 14), the Czech Republic (No. 40) and Scotland (No. 44) — lag well behind.

Bear in mind, however, that Croatia beat England in the semifinal of the 2018 World Cup. England’s fans should not forget about Germany’s inexplicable affinity for breaking their hearts, as Croatia is poised to become the team’s archnemesis. Of course, it is unlikely that England will finish third in the group and miss out on the round of 16, and Die Mannschaft beat England in 1970, 1990 and 1996 in extra time or penalties of knockout round games — not in the group stages. But knowing England’s luck in major tournaments, Croatia could be its new Germany.

The Three (maybe four) Lions

Harry Kane, Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Jack Grealish are the eight forwards in Southgate’s 26-man squad. Together, they scored a combined 88 goals across their respective domestic competitions alone this past season, along with 68 assists. Compared to the forwards in England’s 2012 squad, which included Theo Walcott, Andy Carroll and Danny Welbeck, Southgate’s front line looks like it could compete with mid-2010s Barcelona.

England’s midfield looks solid as well. Holding midfielder Declan Rice, who enjoyed a stellar season in West Ham’s midfield, will provide much needed support in defense. Ben White, the Brighton center back who replaced an injured Trent Alexander Arnold in Southgate’s final squad, can also play as a holding midfielder. Mason Mount appeared in 36 matches this past season for Champions League winners Chelsea.

The back line is the bottom line. After experimenting with three at the back in recent competitions, Southgate may end up playing with four so as to maximize his team’s attacking potential. However, considering that centerback Harry Maguire, who has been a fixture of England’s starting-11 since his first call-up in 2017, has not played for Manchester United since May 9, England’s defense — particularly its central defense — could very well be its Achilles heel. While Conor Coady and Tyrone Mings will be on standby in case Maguire cannot start against Croatia, they simply are not 1-for-1 replacements. The two centerbacks have 15 caps combined to Maguire’s 32, and are highly unlikely to start if Maguire is healthy this Sunday.

Is football coming home?

Yes. Yes it is.

I have never been more confident in an England team. Its World Cup semifinal appearance three years ago proved that this group of players is capable of exceeding expectations at major tournaments. This year’s starting 11 will not include now-35-year-old Ashley Young, who, let us not forget, started in that semifinal match against Croatia. Instead, either Rashford or Grealish, two relatively young and indisputably exciting players who are at the beginning of their primes, will likely be on the pitch. England may have the third-youngest squad in the tournament (24.8), third only to Spain (24.1) and Turkey (24.6), but veteran leaders such as Henderson and captain Kane will provide all the experience Southgate needs to compliment young, hungry players such as Rice, Foden and Mount.

France is the heavy favorite to win the tournament. Didier Deschamps’ team is the most talented on paper and will have easier draws in the early knockout stages. Belgium, currently ranked No. 1 in the FIFA World Rankings, is also favored by many fans over the Three Lions. But because Southgate’s team is not expected to lift the trophy at Wembley, it is in the perfect position to do just that.

If you are superstitious, I suggest knocking on wood. Maybe that will prevent John Stones from inevitably hitting the woodwork during penalties in the inevitable semi final against Germany. That said, Stones might make a great England gaffer

William Cooke covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].