Out with the old, in with the new. Gone are the players of England’s so-called ‘golden generation’ (World Cups: 0, European Championships: 0), and in their place come exciting youngsters.
Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Ross Barkley and Eric Dier are all likely to play a substantial role this summer. However, skipper and record goalscorer Wayne Rooney remains the go-to guy for the fiercely loyal Roy Hodgson, despite press protestations that the Manchester United man should not be selected in the starting XI.
Reaching the finals in France may not have been the toughest ask, but England can still take
a great deal of pride and belief from winning all 10 of their matches. The Three Lions regularly qualify with some degree of comfort, but not always with quite this lack of calamity or concern. It’s what happens next that really counts, though, and it’s at about this stage that things often start to unravel. England’s recent competition showings have largely flattered to deceive – and that’s being generous. In the 10 years since the 2006 World Cup, England have won just three of their 11 matches at major tournaments.
The flipside to that aforementioned youthful exuberance is a lack of top-level experience. Of Hodgson’s regular picks over the past two years, only Rooney, Joe Hart, Gary Cahill and James Milner have passed 40 international appearances. But that may not be a bad thing. The emerging talents have fewer scars from previous failures, while a greater number of players are being picked on the basis of a great season, rather than an impressive CV.
The draw has been relatively kind, particularly in comparison to England’s testing ties in 2012 (France, Sweden and hosts Ukraine) and 2014 (Italy, Uruguay and surprise packages Costa Rica). The standout tie is the ‘derby’ with Wales, but Roy’s boys have more than enough to look comfortable beyond that.
Lesson from qualifying
Primarily, England learned they are actually a pretty decent team. They scored 31 goals in their 10 matches (the second-most in Europe) and let in just three (the fewest in Europe). After a few years of feeling sorry for themselves, perhaps this is the time for England to stick out their chests and march confidently into a major tournament, rather than sneaking in meekly before quickly exiting in a similar fashion.
Although Rooney is still likely to start whatever his form, there’s less of a reliance on big names than there has been in the past 20 years. West Ham’s Mark Noble may disagree, but this is a team picked largely on merit rather than reputation.
March’s friendlies against Germany and the Dutch highlighted England’s increased depth of attacking options but also their shortcomings in the heart of defence. Chris Smalling continues to grow into a fine defender, but Cahill, John Stones and Phil Jagielka will be required to make a big improvement on their domestic showings if England are to even think about reaching the latter stages.
Most likely to...
Lose on penalties. With the Netherlands absent, England are the tournament’s specialists in spot-kick failure. Kane, Barkley and Jamie Vardy are handy from 12 yards, but then so was Stuart Pearce.
Least likely to...
Be dull. With an array of capable forwards at their disposal, and a lack of solid central defensive options, England matches are unlikely to be low-scoring.
What they hope will happen
Glide through the group and into the knockout stages where, unburdened by the pressure of previous years, they finally leave their mark on a major event.
What will happen
Glide through the group and into the knockout stages where, unburdened by the pressure of previous years, they go behind to Portugal in the last eight... but it’s third time lucky, and England make the semis.
Key player - Eric Dier
For years, England have lacked a solid defensive midfielder. In Dier, they may finally have stumbled upon one. The 22-year-old’s move into the middle of the park under Mauricio Pochettino has been one of the biggest success stories of Tottenham’s season, and now England will benefit from his measured aggression.
Manager - Roy Hodgson
The 68-year-old will notch up his 50th match in the England dugout during their pre-tournament friendlies, a milestone surpassed by only Bobby Robson and Sven-Goran Eriksson in the past 34 years.
Q&A - Raheem Sterling
What was the main thing you learned about international tournament football during the World Cup in Brazil?
I learned it’s totally different to playing with your club week in, week out. It’s much more demanding in terms of your concentration levels. You’ve got to take things in your stride, but not look too far ahead. In the big tournaments you’ve just got to focus on your next game and get through it, then go from there. It’s definitely more intense. You’re away from your family for a long time, too, although it’s good to get to know team-mates who you maybe wouldn’t spend quite as much time with otherwise.
What do you think is England’s biggest strength?
The way Roy Hodgson has us playing means we’re always on the front foot, and when we’ve not got the ball, we’re quickly looking to get it back. It helps that he has been in charge for a number of years. I don’t think two years is enough for an international manager – not when you don’t see the players as often as you would if you were managing a club.
In terms of competition for places, even in the squad, would you say this is the most competitive England team you’ve been in?
Yeah, I would. At international level, nobody’s place is guaranteed. There are players coming through every season, playing really well at their clubs and deserving a call-up, so you’ve always got to be at your best.
Do you think that England can win Euro 2016?
Personally, going into any tournament, I want to go there to win it. It’s not something I want to just go and take part in. We’ll go over to France and do our very best, and hopefully we’ll go a long way.
Results and fixtures
June 12, Russia - Marseille, 3am
June 16, Wales - Lens, 9pm
June 21, Slovakia - Saint-Etienne, 3am
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Group E winners
vs Switzerland (A) 2-0
vs San Marino (H) 5-0
vs Estonia (A) 1-0
vs Slovenia (H) 3-1
vs Lithuania (H) 4-0
vs Slovenia (A) 3-2
vs San Marino (A) 6-0
vs Switzerland (H) 2-0
vs Estonia (H) 2-0
vs Lithuania (A) 3-0
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP RECORD
1980 Group stage
1988 Group stage
1992 Group stage
2000 Group stage
Words and interview James Maw