When Lions attack

Will this be England’s year at last? For once, we can go into a tournament with expectation rather than hope, says Mark Pougatch

Here’s a list of this century’s big winners: France, Brazil, Greece, Italy, Spain, Germany, Portugal and Argentina. Now as we’re talking about the European Championship this summer, remove the two South American behemoths who won the World Cup in 2002 and 2022 respectively, and you’re left with European countries that have won either the Euros or the World Cup, or both, since the start of this millennium.

Included among them are four of the continent’s traditional heavyweights plus Portugal – with a population barely 1.5 million more than Greater London but a nation that has consistently produced intelligent, skilful players and also won the inaugural Nations League five years ago – and, with great respect, an outlier in Greece, who took George Graham’s ‘One nil to the Arsenal’ and wrapped it in blue and white on their way to an astonishing Euros triumph 20 years ago.

Of course, you will have clocked by now the glaring omission from that list: the country with the most successful domestic league in the world, the most watched and the most envied, but you have to be well over 60 now to remember her last international victory. When will England ever win again?

Greece took George Graham’s ‘One nil to the Arsenal’ and wrapped it in blue and white on their way to an astonishing Euros triumph.

After our ITV Euro 2024 briefing in London in April, I sat down for a cup of tea with Gabriel Clarke, quite simply the creator and maker of the best football pieces you will watch during the Euros coverage. We talked about our editorial rigour in Germany. What’s the top line going into this summer? What should we all (TV, media, pundits, the public) now anticipate from this England team? Should we actually be putting pressure on this England team to say simply: we now expect you to win?

If you do my job and you don’t self-evaluate critically after a programme, then you’re in the wrong industry. I am my own harshest critic. To be blunt, I don’t need a keyboard warrior in his mum’s spare room in Bolton to tell me where I went wrong, and the day after England’s cruel quarter-final defeat to France in Qatar I was somewhat troubled. Had I – had we – gone a bit too easy on England in our post-match analysis?

Had Harry Kane’s second penalty gone in, all the momentum would have been with England and – with the greatest of respect – Morocco was a semi-final opponent not to intimidate. Once again, after the semi-final defeat in Russia and the Euro heartbreak to Italy, a huge opportunity had slipped by. Look at the list at the top again and say to yourself: is it unreasonable to expect this squad – particularly given its attacking riches – now to break England’s 58 years of hurt?

I told Gabriel I think it’s fair enough to take that position now. Let’s be un-English and start with the good points before getting on to the concerns: the front six have huge potential. You can’t say definitively it’s the best in the tournament, but you can argue there’s not one better.

Given that Gareth Southgate has shown some ruthlessness in the make-up of England’s squad, it all points towards a 4-1-4-1 formation to get the most out of England’s attacking players. This is what I’d love to see. Declan Rice has been magnificent for Arsenal and even though he’s impressed in a more advanced position towards the end of the season, he’ll be the defensive midfielder in this team. Modern-day football is obsessed with numbers, so Rice will be number 6, screening the back four, breaking up attacks, showing his range of passing and his precise tackling.

Let’s be un-English and start with the good points before getting on to the concerns.

Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden will be in the two central positions ahead of Rice. Bellingham’s debut season in Spain was sensational: 27 matches in La Liga, 19 goals, a winner in El Classico, six assists and the title – all as a 20-year-old playing for the biggest football club in the world. Bellingham has the poise, the strength and timing of runs to hurt anyone.

Alongside him has to be the “Stockport Sniper”. Kyle Walker said they call Foden that because “when he comes in on that left foot, he’s got that quality”. Foden was the Football Writers’ Player of the Year and thrived in a central position for Manchester City this season in Kevin de Bruyne’s absence. He is deceptively quick: he glides across the ground, all elegance – David Gower with a ball at his feet. He scores goals and he’s bang in form. Look at his opener against West Ham on the final day, allowing the ball to run across his body, a little feint to confuse the defender, he took it on his back foot and thundered it into the net. Life and football are all about timing: it’s the hour now to give Foden the keys to the house – from the centre of the pitch.

Foden has been used off the left for England, but that would be a waste of him now. I’d go for Cole Palmer. Back in August I watched him score for Manchester City at Wembley in the Community Shield and I finished the season thinking Gareth Southgate has to find a place for him in the first XI. He’s got the insouciance, the fluidity of movement, the weight of pass and the goalscoring threat.

Chelsea came on very strongly in the second half of the season, but in the wreckage of the first few months, here was a kid from Manchester standing on the burning deck of the Bridge and showing his expensively assembled teammates how to do it. He’s got something of Paul Gascoigne about him, and by that I mean: “Who are we playing today? No problem, I’ll show them.”

So Palmer off the left and Bukayo Saka the right. The Arsenal man is now an established international, with 25 goals and assists in 35 Premier League games as his team went close to the title.

That leaves the England captain through the middle, and, with luck, desperate to take his frustration out on continental defences after Bayern Munich’s Bundesliga crown slipped. Not that Bayern’s travails affected Harry Kane in front of goal; he continued to pay the rent with 44 goals at the rate of one a game. He’s never led a better front line, and just consider the potential options off the bench: Watkins, Bowen, Gordon, Eze, Toney, Alexander-Arnold (noticeably named among the midfielders), with Mainoo and the exciting Wharton the more defensive alternatives. I challenge you to identify a better team going forward this summer.

Life and football are all about timing: it’s the hour now to give Foden the keys to the house – from the centre of the pitch.

So “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative” as Bing Crosby once sang – but it would be naive not to recognise the concerns about England’s defence. Jordan Pickford, Kyle Walker and John Stones pick themselves, with the glaring omission of Harry Maguire, just as he was picking up form, leaving some big questions in the back line. Left back is the major headache. Even if Luke Shaw somehow makes it, he’ll be very short of match practice, and I’d anticipate we will see Kieran Trippier in the No. 3 shirt, as he’s done before for his country.

That Southgate named 11 defenders in his long list of 33 underlines the problems he has, and England will need their defensive backup – Marc Guéhi, Ezri Konsa and the adaptable Joe Gomez in particular – to be ready when called upon.

I’m not meaning to hole my own argument below the water line. England will need some luck – when don’t you in a major tournament? – and that fortune may need to come in the shape of the fitness and availability of the first-choice defenders. But their front six, with a myriad of options off the bench, will frighten anyone, and momentum is a huge thing in a championship. It’s time for England to embrace the pressure and the expectation; that is a privilege. It’s time England were added to that list.

Mark Pougatch presents ITV’s football coverage.

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