England play friendlies against Brazil and Belgium during the last international break before Gareth Southgate has to announce his squad for Euro 2024. And there are a few things he still has to figure out…

Euro 2024 is looming, and England are looking in very good shape indeed. They go into the tournament as one of the favourites to win it, having come within a penalty shootout of winning the final on home soil in the last edition.

But the pain of a quarter-final exit to France at the last World Cup is still raw, and they will need to improve this summer if they are to finally end all these years of hurt (we’ve lost count of how many it is).

The current international break is the last one before manager Gareth Southgate names his squad for the tournament, and with two friendlies against top-class opposition in Brazil and Belgium, this is the last opportunity to confirm his team for the finals. But there are a few big questions that still need to be answered, so we’re here to go through four of them.

Who is Going to Start on the Left Side of Attack?

Marcus Rashford has long been a favourite of Southgate’s, so he will have been delighted to see the Manchester United forward hit a little spell of form of late. He has three goals in his last three games – including a sensational strike in the Manchester derby a few weeks ago – after a run of five games without a goal. Southgate has never needed much excuse to put Rashford in his team, and now he has good reason to.

But others are less sure of Rashford’s merits. The sight of him missing a sitter to win the FA Cup tie against Liverpool sticks longer in the memory for many than the equaliser he went on to score in extra-time. Overall, it hasn’t been a season to remember for Rashford, and many England fans would be disappointed to see him line up on the left side of attack ahead of Phil Foden.

Foden has had a brilliant season, stepping up for Manchester City as the champions’ match-winner at crucial moments while Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland have struggled with fitness problems. Foden’s 11 goals have been worth eight points to City, including two in the comeback win over United to render Rashford’s opener meaningless.

An indication of the difference in form and confidence these two players have experienced this season comes in their expected goals (xG) numbers and their overall return in front of goal. Foden, who is also more of a creator than Rashford, has overperformed his non-penalty xG by 2.5, with his 11 non-penalty goals coming from 8.5 xG. Rashford, meanwhile, has underperformed by -0.5, scoring just five non-penalty goals from 5.5 xG. And that’s even with his goal against City coming from a chance worth 0.02 xG. Foden has had a far better season in front of goal.

marcus rashford xg map
phil foden xg map

Other options on the left include Aston Villa’s in-form forward Ollie Watkins, Chelsea’s Cole Palmer, and Newcastle’s Anthony Gordon, though the first two would be playing out of position if they were on the left. Each of the three seem far less likely to start in this position than Foden or Rashford, but there’s an argument for one or two of them to be given a chance in this set of friendlies. Jack Grealish will of course be considered for the Euros if he can prove his fitness in the coming months. There’s plenty to ponder here.

Who Will Join Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham in Midfield?

At the 2022 World Cup, the answer to this question was Jordan Henderson. The then-Liverpool captain impressed in Qatar as part of Southgate’s midfield three, linking up with Jude Bellingham particularly well, notably in the last-16 victory over Senegal.

However, 15 months is a long time in football, and Henderson has had quite a rollercoaster at club level. After a short stint in Saudi Arabia with Al-Ettifaq, the 33-year-old moved to Ajax in January, where he has tried to provide experience to a struggling young side.

But having not played in one of Europe’s top five leagues since last season and with some of Henderson’s early performances in the Netherlands coming in for criticism, it feels like the time is right for Southgate to move on to the next stage for his midfield.

It doesn’t look like there’ll be a place Kalvin Phillips, who seems to have proven to be the exception to the rule that playing time increases chances of international opportunities. Phillips’ rocky start to his loan spell at West Ham has seen him left out of the England squad, of which he was a regular part when he mostly took up bench space for Manchester City.

The result of not selecting Phillips is that Rice is almost certainly going to have to play as the deepest midfielder, which leaves a number-eight spot to be filled. Southgate has a few different types of player to consider here.

Reports have suggested the England manager had intended to give Trent Alexander-Arnold some more time in midfield in these upcoming friendlies, but the Liverpool man is absent with a knee injury, which makes it likely that Conor Gallagher and/or James Maddison will be tried out.

Gallagher has been a rare bright spark for Chelsea this season, with two goals and five assists in the Premier League and an impressive 90.7% passing accuracy. Only eight players in England’s top flight have made more than his 68 tackles.

Conor Gallagher tackles PL 23-24

Should Southgate want a more attacking option, Maddison has 11 goal involvements (4 goals, 7 assists) in just 18 Premier League appearances for Tottenham this season.

That leaves Kobbie Mainoo. The Manchester United youngster was drafted into the senior side this week for the first time, and it has been a popular decision. Mainoo has been one of United’s best players this season at the tender age of 18.

United’s win percentage has been noticeably better with Mainoo starting (58.8%) than not (47.8%) this season, while since his senior debut for the club in late November, only Diogo Dalot (32) and Bruno Fernandes (31) have had more involvements in the build-up to a shot than Mainoo (28).

Southgate has plenty of options in midfield but, in truth, no obvious single answer. The final three months of the season could decide who plays in there in Germany this summer.

Is Harry Maguire Still the Best Option at Centre-Back?

Assuming John Stones is fit for the Euros this summer, it will be him and An Other at centre-back. Southgate long bewildered many England fans by persisting with Harry Maguire at left centre-back when he wasn’t playing for Manchester United, but an injury crisis at Old Trafford has meant Maguire has got a decent amount of game time this season.

His 1,156 Premier League minutes in 2023-24 is actually more than Stones has for City (953). He has also been playing fairly well, and has largely been deserving of the starting spot Erik ten Hag has given him intermittently.

He has consistently stood out for his ability to bring the ball out of defence, and this season has been no different, with his 11.5 progressive carries (carrying the ball at least 5 metres up field) per 90 the 13th highest of all Premier League players to have played at least 1,000 minutes. He jumps into the top 10 when only looking at centre-backs.

harry maguire progressive carries

He also remains a significant threat at attacking set-pieces, which we know Southgate values. Meanwhile – and for many fans this will be crucial – Maguire hasn’t made a single error leading to an opposition goal this season. Maybe he’s turned a corner?

But while Southgate will probably like the idea of sticking with his tried-and-tested duo at the back, there will be calls for him to look a little towards the future. Jarrad Branthwaite, for example, has played almost the entire season for Everton, is left-footed and is still only 21, so could be England’s starting left-sided centre-back for years to come. Ezri Konsa has also had a good season, while Lewis Dunk and Joe Gomez provide other options.

Those first three alternatives have only three caps between them, though – all of them for Dunk – so Southgate is unlikely to take a risk on them, if we’re honest, while Gomez has predominantly played at full-back for Liverpool this season.

Marc Guéhi was more likely to force his way into the team but a knee injury and the surgery that followed may have scuppered his chances. Eric Dier, now playing regularly for Champions League hopefuls Bayern Munich, could be an outside bet for a place in the squad. Southgate is known to value Dier’s leadership skills, so he will be keeping an eye on his progress.

The likelihood when it comes to England’s centre-backs is that Southgate will go with what he knows and trusts. After that, surely, he will select someone other than Maguire for the next international campaign.

Although we’re sure that’s been said before…

Is There a Plan B Up Front?

Those of a certain vintage like to reminisce about England’s striker options in the 1990s. While Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham were shining as a partnership under Terry Venables, they were keeping the likes of Ian Wright, Robbie Fowler, Andy Cole and Les Ferdinand out of the picture. It was an embarrassment of riches.

Things haven’t been quite as bright since, but England are well stocked up front once again. Such is the depth of quality, the Premier League’s third-top scorer this season, Dominic Solanke (15 goals), hasn’t even made the squad.

Harry Kane is unquestionably the main man as England’s captain, their top goalscorer, and the top scorer across Europe’s top five leagues this season by at least seven goals (31).

He could miss their upcoming friendlies though, or at least play a very limited role after suffering an ankle knock for Bayern Munich last time out. It is a reminder to Southgate that he may need to turn to others at some point at Euro 2024 this summer should anything happen to Kane.

Ollie Watkins has been in sensational form for Aston Villa. In fact, only Kane (38) and Kylian Mbappé (29) have more goal involvements across Europe’s top five leagues this season than his 26 (16 goals, 10 assists). That assist total also seems significant, considering how valuable Kane’s contributions are to creating as well as scoring. Only Bundesliga pair Leroy Sané and Alex Grimaldo (both 11) have more assists in Europe’s top five leagues in 2023-24 than Watkins.

Ollie Watkins goal involvements PL 23-24

He is likely to play some part in the friendlies against Brazil and Belgium, as could Ivan Toney, who is back in the international fold for the first time since returning from his betting-related ban from football.

The Brentford striker has four goals in 10 games since his comeback in January, and scored 20 goals in the Premier League last season. Of the 10 players who scored more across Europe’s top five leagues, nine played more games than Toney (33).

It will be interesting to see if he is tested out in a front two at any point over the next two games, have grown used to playing in a two alongside Neal Maupay or Yoane Wissa at club level. That could open up even more possibilities for the England manager.

Whoever Southgate opts for as back-up to Kane, he arguably has the best set of options since those heady days in the 1990s.

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