It is strange to look back at the names on the list when Gareth Southgate picked his squad for England’s final qualifiers for Euro 2020. A lot has changed since those games against Montenegro and Kosovo in November 2019, back when England were a free-scoring side with a worrying habit of giving away cheap goals.
Fourteen players from that 27-man squad have drifted away, some dropping out of contention because of indifferent form, others due to bad luck with injuries. Jack Grealish has emerged, snatching the maverick spot from James Maddison. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, scorer of the opening goal in the 7-0 thrashing of Montenegro, has rarely been fit since, while Ross Barkley, Fabian Delph and Harry Winks have been squeezed out by the emergence of Jude Bellingham and Kalvin Phillips in midfield. Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Fikayo Tomori have fallen out of contention.
It goes to show that nothing stands still in football. Twenty months ago it was unthinkable that Trent Alexander-Arnold’s England role would cause so much division. Alexander-Arnold, still buzzing from that corner against Barcelona, seemed a sure pick at right-back. He was starring for Liverpool as they ran away with the Premier League title and his main competition for a place in the starting XI, Kyle Walker, was not even in the squad after struggling when England lost their Nations League semi-final to the Netherlands in June 2019.
Yet times change, the disruption caused by the pandemic altering the squad’s dynamic. The unknown, of course, is how England would have fared if the Euros had been held last year. They were a different team, less secure, nowhere near as streetwise, and the concern back then would have been whether the defence was strong enough to take on Europe’s best.
It would have had a different look to the one that lined up against Denmark at Wembley on Wednesday. The likelihood is that three members of that back four would not have even been in Southgate’s squad last summer. The John Stones who has glided through the tournament so serenely was nowhere to be seen 12 months ago, meaning it probably would have been Joe Gomez or Michael Keane next to Harry Maguire in central defence, and it is doubtful that opposition wingers would have been running into Walker and Luke Shaw, both of whom have been outstanding during England’s run to the final.
For Southgate, the delay was a blessing in disguise, giving him time to build one of the strongest defences in Europe. England have conceded once in six games before facing Italy on Sunday evening and give little away at the back. They conceded few clear chances against Denmark, whose goal was a stunning free-kick from Mikkel Damsgaard, and have placed a heavy emphasis on clean sheets, reasoning that their forwards will have enough to win the game if they keep opponents away from their own goal.
It makes the fury that greeted Southgate’s decision to drop Alexander-Arnold in March all the more absurd. England have not suffered without the Liverpool defender, who was ruled out of the tournament after suffering a thigh injury during last month’s friendly against Austria. As good as he is, Alexander-Arnold has not been a loss on the right flank, where Walker’s strength, positioning and recovery speed have made him one of England’s most important players.
Walker was superb against Denmark, defending brilliantly, reading danger, always ready to sprint back to cover for his fellow defenders. The City right-back has matured with age, playing with more focus, and deserves credit for forcing his way back into the squad.
It has not been straightforward for Walker, who thought his international career was over when he was sent off after returning to the fold against Iceland last September. It was an understandable reaction given England have so many options at right-back. Southgate, though, kept the faith.
Walker has remained in the squad since that aberration and, although the 31-year-old has had a couple of dodgy moments this summer, particularly when he almost gifted Ukraine a goal in Rome last weekend, England have been better with him in the team.
The same applies to Shaw, who had not featured for England for more than two years before returning in March. The left-back has been superb after rising above Ben Chilwell in the pecking order. Shaw has been a threat on the attack and he has enjoyed playing next to his Manchester United teammate Maguire, who has taken strength from Stones’s resurgence.
It had been quite the fall from grace for Stones. Although the centre-back started against Montenegro, he was in a funk at the time. Stones was going through a crisis of confidence at City and he kept suffering from costly lapses of concentration, not least when he made a woeful error during that Nations League defeat by the Netherlands.
It left Southgate with no option but to leave out Stones last autumn. Yet there is always a way back with this manager. Stones knuckled down, winning back his place at City and helping them romp to the title, and Southgate was delighted to bring him back into the fold in March.
Timing is everything. England are sturdier now. The defence has formed a protective shield around Jordan Pickford, who has benefited from the calmer atmosphere, and they will back themselves against Federico Chiesa and Ciro Immobile.