England go into the much delayed Euro 2020 with high expectations and the manager Gareth Southgate having an increasingly exciting and talented young group of players to pick from. Hold on, haven’t we been here before?
Maybe, but it does feel like a different England under Southgate. Whilst you cannot please everyone, the team now come across as far more likeable than many of its previous incarnations and that’s backed up by success on the pitch too with two consecutive semi-final appearances now to their name. There is an air of confidence in this team without the arrogance of old and a firm belief in its ability without the brash cockiness seen in past eras.
England start the tournament as favourites to win their group and as one of the most highly fancied teams in the entire tournament, but they won’t be caught by surprise by any of their group opponents with each one in its own way a familiar face.
Each match will be tough, but in many ways the second match with Scotland is looking like the toughest test after an impressive run of results under manager Steve Clarke who has transformed the previously much maligned home nation. Which makes beating England’s World Cup semi-final nemesis Croatia in their opening game all the more important and that won’t be easy opponents either.
Whilst Czech Republic’s win over England in qualification, the success of Czech internationals Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal at West Ham last season, along with the success of the countries invincible domestic league champions Slavia Prague over British teams in the Europa League last season all ensuring England are well aware of their threats too. All three matches mean any speculation over potential last 16 opponents and possible routes to a prospective semi-final and final at Wembley will have to remain on ice for now.
Southgate said after England’s friendly win over Romania last weekend that he had just one place in the starting eleven for Sunday’s opener against Croatia that he was still unsure of, and I wonder if it’s his choice over defensive shape and personnel that this quandary is in relation too.
Much has been made of Man United Captain Harry Maguire’s injury in the lead up to the tournament and if he was fit he would almost certainly start alongside John Stones, but someone’s loss is another person’s opportunity and England’s back-up centre-back options of Mings, Coady and the late addition of our very own Ben White will all likely be in his thoughts.
The pre-existing members of the England squad Tyrone Mings and Conor Coady would appear to be at the front of the queue despite much derision being put their way on social media. Mings as a no nonsense defender may be Southgate’s go to option alongside Stones in a back four, whilst Coady would probably be more likely first pick in a back three.
Mings in particular has seen his fair share of criticism after a couple of unimpressive performances in England’s warm up games, but as many have already pointed out these games are more about gaining/maintaining fitness and avoiding injury than performance. Whilst his two years at Villa in the Premier League marshalling their defence to survival and then an impressive 11th place last season show he’s more than capable to fill the hole in the back four if required. As the Aston Villa online blog “Under A Gaslit Lamp” said recently: “Regardless of the occasional below par performance, Aston Villa are a better team and club due to the fact that Tyrone Mings is a part of it and he will be vital, as Dean Smith tries to steer the club into the upper echelons of the Premier League and back into Europe.” Unfortunately for him, in tournament football any mistake is likely to be amplified and ultimately this may count against him.
As an Albion fan I will be hoping that is the case and it is instead Ben White who gets the nod against Croatia, a player who’s versatility to be able to play in a number of positions along with his potential to improve appears to be what has secured him a place in England’s 26 after the injury to Alexander-Arnold.
White has continued to impress since coming to the attention of the Albion faithful during his multi-award winning season on loan at Newport County and his Rookie Premier League season saw him continue his impressive rise and surprise a few last weekend to win the club’s player of the season award, albeit seemingly with the help of his old friends from Leeds.
Whilst he only made his Premier League debut less than a year ago and his England debut less than two weeks ago, I doubt Gareth Southgate will be afraid to throw him in if he feels that he’s his best choice. After all Southgate himself was handed a surprise call up and subsequent selection to start as centre back for England at Euro 1996. Having only made his England debut seven months before, he started the opener against Switzerland alongside captain Tony Adams with just four caps to his name.
If it is Ben White who starts for England, it will be a huge personal moment for him and his family. But also for the Albion and everyone involved at the club. It is 23 years ago this week that the club made the signing of the Withdean era legend Gary Hart for £1,000 and a set of tracksuits from non-league Stansted, who went on to be the club’s joint top scorer in his first season. That youth team product Ben White has made the England squad this summer, let alone is being discussed as in contention for a start in the opening game, shows just how far the club has come since then.