IMAGE: England manager Gareth Southgate reacts. Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Reuters
England head into Euro 2020 with a new factor for manager Gareth Southgate to deal with — high expectations.
In 2018, Southgate took a young England side to the World Cup in Russia with few seriously expecting the team to return home with the trophy.
England, helped by a favourable draw but also some impressive performances, reached the semi-finals before bowing out to Croatia and were given positive reviews by most.
This time, though, with his key players having matured and exciting young talent breaking into the side, the expectations go beyond just making a good impression.
With all England’s group games to be played at home, at Wembley Stadium, and the London venue also hosting the semi-finals and final, Southgate knows that talk of “learning” or “progress” isn’t going to be enough this time.
The good news for the 50-year-old former England player is that he has the quality in his squad to live up to the hopes of a country that has not won a major tournament since the World Cup, on home soil, 55 years ago.
The core of the 2018 World Cup team remains and the additional experience they have gained should only help. The two Harrys — centre half Maguire and striker Kane — remain the leaders of the squad.
Full backs Kyle Walker and Luke Shaw are both enjoying excellent form at club level while John Stones has regained his composure and should make a strong partnership with Maguire.
The midfield area was lacking in Russia but there are new, young, options there with Chelsea’s Mason Mount and Manchester City’s Phil Foden having burst onto the scene so impressively.
Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish has the creativity and flair to be a real difference maker in tight games, although it remains to be seen if Southgate can find the right place for him in his system.
Southgate will hope that Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson recovers from injury in time to provide the defensive solidity needed to balance such attack-minded midfielders although West Ham’s Declan Rice can also play in that role.
Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling have played either side of Kane in Southgate’s full-strength line-ups, but Sterling’s dip in form means he could face a challenge to his starting place with Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho next in line. Foden and Grealish can both play in more advanced roles.
There is no doubt that Southgate has plenty of talent to choose from — and the likes of Liverpool full back Trent Alexander-Arnold, Manchester United forward Mason Greenwood, Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham and Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin offer more than just useful cover.
The biggest question is whether Southgate can find the right formation and tactics to get the best out of a group of players that should be serious contenders to win their first ever European Championship.
Amid the justified praise for Southgate’s management in Russia, there were criticisms of his failure to make in-game changes in the loss to Croatia and there are concerns he may be too cautious to make the most of the abundance of attacking talent available to him.
England should need no extra motivation on home soil but Southgate will need to switch his approach from a nurturer and developer of young players into a ruthless winner.
Croatia, Czech Republic and Scotland are England’s opponents in Group D.