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Mason Mount Sums Up Impossible Task Facing England At Euro 2020 As Harry Kane Stands Alone

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For many followers, ballooned by a biennial dose of unreasonable expectations, nothing less than lifting the trophy at Wembley on July 11 will constitute success for England over the next month.

And yet as Gareth Southgate’s team count down the final hours before beginning their campaign against Croatia on Sunday afternoon there remains too many question marks for an objective observer to class them as Tier 1 contenders irrespective of the bookmakers making them second favourites behind France.

For all the attacking talent at the manager’s disposal, a surfeit of wide players and No10s in addition to one of the world’s top two No9s, lack of depth in other departments is too much of a red flag. France, Portugal and Belgium all have better balanced groups.

Southgate, of course, likes versatility. When asked to explain his reasoning behind picking four right backs in his initial 26-man squad, the manager said that he only sees four very good footballers before listing out other roles they could be deployed in.

But options are not necessarily always welcome in a competition where solidity so often trumps fluidity. Forty-eight hours out from their first game, no one apart from Southgate, his coaching staff and perhaps the players can be certain of the line up and system.

It sounds like he is edging towards a back three, potentially accommodating four players who are mostly used as full backs in club football, but this is not a game in which predicted teams are going to be nailed on.

First, the midfield. That doubts remain from some quarters around Declan Rice’s talent is a folly but much rests on Jordan Henderson being fit enough to partner the West Ham United star. Rice, as proven at West Ham, requires a partner – and that rules out Southgate going for a 4-3-3 with two forward-thinking No8s.

Henderson said earlier this week that he is aiming to be fit for Sunday but he last completed 90 minutes in mid-February and the cameo against Romania last weekend, his first action since, was barely medium-intensity.

Then there is the defence. Southgate has always been a pragmatist, even during his days as a club manager, and it is the backline that is the greatest source of angst. Harry Maguire’s injury does not help, although the Manchester United captain trained on the grass for the first time yesterday, and there is a suspicion that if he is absent England are more likely to revert to the three-man defence that produced mixed results in the autumn.

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John Stones can be easy on the eye apart from that one slip in concentration a game and needs a more robust partner alongside him, while the makeup of a three could be anyone’s guess considering Luke Shaw and Reece James have spent time in inside roles at training, Kyle Walker has the most experience of such a system, Tyrone Mings and Conor Coady are the squad’s other recognised centre backs and Ben White has gone from not being in the squad to a genuine option in the space of a week.

As for the attack, well, good luck finding a balance that will not leave noses out of joint. Do a poll among some friends and Harry Kane may be the only unanimous inclusion. Mason Mount has seemed a lock to start since November but Phil Foden’s ascent and Jack Grealish’s impressive form have even put the Chelsea star’s in a less comfortable position. The likelihood is Mount will continue but that means sacrificing at least one of the other two or going with a team lacking top-level speed.

Raheem Sterling has been far from his best this season but Southgate is loyal and few have served the national team as well as the Man City forward in the past few years. Marcus Rashford also offers an extra gear compared to Grealish and Foden before considering that Jadon Sancho may be the best wide option of all.

Enough to make your head spin, right?

Either way Southgate will disappoint several of his players and thousands of supporters versus Croatia. Should the tournament not start well there will be no shortage of finger pointing and criticism. That is why the England manager’s job is more often than not a thankless task.

The shift to five substitutions may help in this regard and, in a tight game, some raw speed in the final 20 minutes against a team with fewer options can prove decisive.

A quirk of the draw means that winning Group D will almost certainly set up a meeting with one of France, Germany or Portugal and already there are bemusing conversations from some observers over whether they should try to finish second to avoid one of the past two World Cup winners and reigning champions. Dangerous game, best not play it.

Still, losing narrowly to any of those three would be no shame and England will need to meet them at some point if they are to go deep. But as Southgate faces those familiar high expectations his first major task is simply getting the team right.