Euro 2020 will be in 2021 and its 23-man squads may contain 25 men. Suffice to say these were not developments many foresaw 18 months ago. Now, one is a fact, the other a possibility.
Expanding the pool of players available to each manager is only a proposal at the moment. It has a certain amount of sense, offering COVID cover and greater insurance against injuries after a more congested season. With managers permitted five substitutes, it can seem logical they have a bigger bench. Giving them an extra two players could both save difficult decisions and create others. Coaches will have to give bad news to fewer fringe figures; those who do not make a final 25, however, are given a greater snub.
The probability is that Gareth Southgate, who routinely names squads of at least 25, would prefer a bigger group. There are a range of possible beneficiaries. There is a theory to picking a 23-man group: three goalkeepers plus two players for every other position. With 25, it is a question of where the manager wants to allocate the extra resources.
HOW IT COULD LOOK? England Euro 2020 squad: The complete line-up for March's internationals
Southgate’s right-back fetish means it is easy to envisage him using the opportunity to name three right-backs and still not call up Trent Alexander-Arnold. Besides loyalty and obstinacy, there is a certain logic to it.
While some teams are wedded to one system, England could alternate between two and, with a back three, Kyle Walker becomes an extra central defender. Three right-backs give him two right wing-backs, meaning an injury to Reece James or Kieran Trippier does not force him to field a back four.
There is also an argument for a fifth specialist centre-back: Eric Dier, the only outfield player who went unused in the March triple-header of World Cup qualifiers, filled that role then. One who has offered stalwart service to Southgate in tournaments before, particularly from the penalty spot, and who evidently ticks the box for good tourists could make for a solid 24th citizen.
Dier’s old role in midfield gives him an added appeal. Injuries will shape many a squad and England’s could be no exception. Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson are both sidelined now and, while each is expected to be fit for the tournament, if there are some doubts about each, there is a case to bolster their band of deputies. Kalvin Phillips and James Ward-Prowse look first in line to understudy them; add an extra midfielder and Jude Bellingham could be the bolter, the precocious wild card who has the potential to leapfrog more senior figures in the pecking order.
The young could profit from larger squads. Their selection can seem futuristic; if they are left unused, it can nevertheless be argued they got valuable experience of tournament life. Southgate has a fondness for fast-tracking rookies anyway and Bukayo Saka has the ability to look at home in any environment or any role.
And yet, especially with Luke Shaw’s renaissance, he could have been squeezed out by the principle of taking two per position. Instead, as the 24th or 25th man, Saka could be a multipurpose added option: left-back, wing-back, midfielder, right winger and left winger, deluxe cover for every emergency.
Conventional thinking might dictate that an extra man would be an extra striker. The likelihood is that Southgate will only take Harry Kane and Dominic Calvert-Lewin as specialist No. 9s, with Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling able to stand in. Expanding the squad, then, could set up a three-way shootout between Danny Ings, Ollie Watkins and Patrick Bamford for the third striker’s role; assuming Tammy Abraham plays too few minutes for Chelsea and that Callum Wilson is out of the reckoning.
And yet there is a different way. If Mason Mount, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Sterling and Rashford were the favourites to take the six spots as England’s wingers and attacking midfielders and James Maddison and Harvey Barnes may have suffered from both injuries and extracurricular activities, then Jesse Lingard’s extraordinary form has catapulted him back into contention.
A player Southgate has championed in the past is starting to look impossible to ignore. Rather than a third centre-forward, he might want a seventh versatile attacker, deeming them more potent at the highest level. And more than most England, with injury concerns, two possible systems and a raft of progressive players competing simply to get in the squad, should want the chance to take 25 players, whoever the 24th and 25th actually are.
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Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.
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