The lingering England questions that Euro 2024 opener against Serbia will answer | OneFootball

The lingering England questions that Euro 2024 opener against Serbia will answer | OneFootball

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Icon: The Independent

The Independent

·16 June 2024

The lingering England questions that Euro 2024 opener against Serbia will answer

Article image:The lingering England questions that Euro 2024 opener against Serbia will answer

On Friday night, as Germany were setting a pace for their tournament by thrashing Scotland, Gareth Southgate gathered the England squad for a meeting. The theme of this was more reflective, almost a final mission statement before it all begins. Southgate spoke about the tournaments they’ve already been through and the lessons that his staff and senior players have taken. That’s more important than usual, given that 12 of the 26 have never even been in this situation before. Southgate did also point to how some elements from the past that have served England well can now be discarded.

That doesn’t really apply to opening games, though. England actually have a fine record in such matches under Southgate, that has actually improved with each tournament. In 2018, there was the late 3-1 win over Tunisia. In Euro 2020, there was a professional – and vengeful – victory over Croatia. In 2022, there was the 6-2 evisceration of Iran. England were almost the Germany of that tournament.

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As to whether Southgate’s team can follow the hosts on Sunday, in the way Spain did by destroying Croatia, as well as their own trend, that is another unknown about this first match against Serbia in Gelsenkirchen. It is why this feels more portentous than any of those two previous opening games, maybe the most telling since Tunisia.

We’ll get a sense of what this new England are. Duly, after a lot of rumination over the past few weeks, Southgate at least seems to have an idea of what his starting XI will be. That currently looks like: Jordan Pickford; Kyle Walker, Marc Guehi, John Stones, Kieran Tripper; Declan Rice, Trent Alexander-Arnold; Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka; Harry Kane. One decision will be made late on. Southgate will assess Luke Shaw again to at least try and have one left-footed player in defence, but it currently seems as if it is a game too early given his fitness.

Article image:The lingering England questions that Euro 2024 opener against Serbia will answer

Trent Alexander-Arnold is set to start in midfield for England (Getty Images)

One decision seems to have been arrived at in the last week. With the way Southgate spoke about Alexander-Arnold – and defended the Liverpool star against critical analysis from Wayne Rooney – it seems certain the one-time right-back will start beside Rice.

There have been a lot of questions about his defensive work, but that probably won’t be as important in a match that is set to be as open as this. Serbia are porous. And, while they will attack, it probably makes sense to use superior attacking strengths to go at them. Going toe to toe suits Southgate much more. If Serbia want a shoot-out, England ultimately have much greater firepower.

The question is what calibre. Perhaps the biggest unknown about this game is how well the attack clicks, since it is at least a new dynamic to the team. Alexander-Arnold’s very presence in the centre changes things. Kane had no doubts about his potential impact, though.

“It’s great. Trent has shown his abilities over many seasons now,” the striker said. “Amazing delivery from wide areas, amazing vision with the passes and I think as a striker you can only enjoy that, you can only love that. If you are making runs there is someone there looking for you. You might not always get the ball but it’s always important that the midfielders and the strikers have that connection where you are willing to make the runs because they have the ability to put the ball in behind.”

It should be stressed that the attack still know each other pretty well, though. For all the debate about how bold Southgate has gone with the squad, that applies more to the options from the bench rather than the starting XI. There is familiarity there.

Article image:The lingering England questions that Euro 2024 opener against Serbia will answer

Harry Kane will lead England into another major tournament (Getty Images)

And, if Southgate does need to change it, it would actually be entirely in-keeping with a trend of the tournament so far. Maybe that’s why he was so unusually excited in the build-up. He could see the shift towards youthful attack, and knows he has an awful lot of that kind of talent. England would just be following Germany and Spain, rather than striking out on their own in such a bold way.

It wouldn’t be Southgate, of course, without offering some temperance. He played down the possibility of following Germany and Spain in terms of statement attacking performances.

“You can only control the things that are within your control and there are elements that we’ve inherited in terms of physical conditioning and availability but we always focus on ‘OK, this is the hand of cards we have got, what’s the best way to play them?’ And, of course, everybody would love to have the start to a tournament like Germany did. Every coach in the competition will be dreaming of a few early goals and able to change your players and rest them. But not every game for Germany is going to be like that and not every team that has won tournaments has started in that fashion.”

That’s an important point in itself. You only have to look at how Spain got knocked out in the last 16 after their 8-1 victory over Costa Rica to open the 2022 World Cup. England themselves only got as far as the quarter-finals after that win over Iran – their worst finish, after what had been the best opening.

Article image:The lingering England questions that Euro 2024 opener against Serbia will answer

Jude Bellingham will be key to England’s fortunes in Germany (AP)

Serbia are curious opposition in that regard. They have talent, as well as a real threat in Aleksandar Mitrovic, but also considerable weaknesses. We’re long past the days where they were considered “dark horses”, after so many let-downs. That might actually serve Serbia. There is nowhere near the same expectation around the camp. Manager Dragan Stojkovic is under some pressure. Southgate certainly isn’t one to take any side lightly.

“They’ve scored a lot of goals in qualifying. They have good individual players, some of whom obviously we know from being in the Premier League. The system they play can cause problems. They are positive in the way that they go about that. And we know that their commitment and pride is a huge strength to them as a team so we've made the players very aware of all of those factors in training this week.”

That “commitment and pride” is part of a wider context that has served to charge this game, at least off the pitch. Serbian nationalism has brought an alignment with Russia, and this is viewed by authorities as a “high-risk game”.

Southgate couldn’t get involved in any of that, of course. He merely asked the fans to enjoy the occasion.

Another England exhibition would help. This specific opening game, however, is as much about this team showing what they are.

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