The biggest concern for Gareth Southgate is that, even in areas where England possess an embarrassment of riches, some of his jewels risk starting Euro 2020 without their shine. It is evident he feels his planning has, at least to some extent, been conducted in the dark because of the lack of clarity over certain players’ conditions and, given the remorseless intensity of tournament football, some of the decisions he faces over the next week may be less straightforward than he would like.
While Trent Alexander-Arnold occupied much of the attention during the media briefings Southgate gave after naming his preliminary squad, his outlining of the difficulties surrounding another of England’s more lavish talents was eyecatching and did much to explain why he has chosen to hedge his bets with bloated numbers. Jack Grealish would walk into most onlookers’ 26-strong selections on a given day and his place in Southgate’s affections is hardly dissimilar; he has rebounded encouragingly from three months out, keeping up with the pace in two starts and two substitute appearances during Aston Villa’s league run-in, but England require another level still.
“I don’t see him as an injury doubt,” Southgate said. “I see a realistic view in terms of ‘where can we get to from where he is in the space of two weeks, in terms of 90 minutes, 90 minutes, 90 minutes?’ We risk breaking him. We can’t overload him, so we’ve got to manage that really correctly for his welfare, as well as for performance.”
Grealish’s shin injury was, as Southgate pointed out, attributable to overload and it is a problem that risks appearing across the board given the burdens a coronavirus-addled schedule has imposed over the past year. “Can these guys go for six 90 minutes? Very unlikely I would say,” he said of Grealish and England’s other fitness doubts. “[Grealish] is not able to train on consecutive days for example, and he hasn’t had a high training load going into those matches. There are elements of risks that brings.” He suggested Jordan Henderson, whose own status remains a concern, may be better cut out for duty at this point even though he has not played since 20 February.
These are significant admissions given that, even though Uefa granted larger squad sizes for precisely this purpose, wriggle room remains limited if things go wrong. European Championships often reward durability and pragmatism: there is little room for sentiment and, given England’s depth in most positions, arguably scant need to cross the fingers with maybes.
Southgate gave little indication that players beyond the 26 who, presumably, have made the final cut in his head can play themselves into contention for reasons beyond fitness issues. That would appear unlikely given there will be no chance for side-by-side assessment with the dozen participants in European finals before next Tuesday. But other scenarios are plausible. What if Grealish needs standing down from some components of the coming days’ training, while Bukayo Saka meets Southgate’s demands at full throttle? Grealish offers England’s attack a unique drive and insistence, but Saka would hardly present a step down in quality and his versatility could yet be vital.
It is a delicate calculation to make, particularly as there can be a danger of overthinking such matters: what havoc might a charged-up Grealish wreak if he was kept in reserve for the final 20 minutes of a knife-edge last-16 tie against France or Germany? England are hardly thin on creative sources who would be ready to start, and Euro 2020 would hardly be the first tournament to be won by a high-impact performer off the bench.
The sense is that Southgate can afford one or two moderate gambles such as Grealish, but few more. Assuming Grealish makes the grade it will appear unfortunate for the excellent Saka, although the Arsenal youngster could stake a claim to Mason Greenwood’s place even if they are not like-for-likes, and a further indication of Southgate’s view of James Maddison. Time was when Grealish and Maddison were routinely mentioned as direct rivals for the same spot; on Tuesday Southgate offered relatively short shrift when the latter’s absence was brought up, saying others were “just ahead” of him and venturing to point out Youri Tielemans has usurped him on set piece duty for Leicester.
“We’ll know more as we work with them a bit more through the coming weeks,” Southgate said, expecting the picture to become clearer for Grealish and everyone else as England gather their own data from training exercises. His de facto standbys wait in the wings in case the potential knocks look just too hard.