Major questions over Man Utd, Chelsea and Newcastle stars remain for England manager Gareth Southgate
England feel like they should be in a good place after securing Euro 2024 qualification - but all may not be as it seems.
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Gareth Southgate may have wanted to answer a few questions during the final two games of England's Euro 2024 qualification campaign - but is seems more questions have been thrown up by two underwhelming performances.
It should be said, the Three Lions had already comfortably qualified for next summer's finals in Germany prior to Friday night's Wembley meeting with Malta and the visit to North Macedonia on Monday. And it is worth adding Southgate's men have come through a second successive qualification campaign without a defeat to their name.
But as much as I want to think it's all plain sailing from now until next summer, there is just a nagging feeling that something isn't quite right, despite England being roundly tipped as one of the favourites to lift the Henri Delaunay in Berlin's Olympiastadion in June.
The reasons for that status as all too clear to see. England possess some of the best players in Europe and the likes of Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham have only enhanced their already lofty reputations by flourishing following big money summer moves to Bayern Munich and Real Madrid respectively.
Declan Rice is as good as there is in European football in the heart of midfield and the likes of Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish can offer a creative buzz when the reins come off. At full-back, Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker have shown their ability to compete at the top level and Trent Alexander-Arnold will surely shine at international level in the not-too-distant future.
Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell offer solid, if not spectacular, options on the opposite side of the back four and John Stones, when fit, is a cool and classy options at the heart of the defence. Even the often maligned Jordan Pickford has proven to be a reliable at international level and, most of all, has the complete trust of his manager.
There are promising talents like Cole Palmer, Rico Lewis and Levi Colwill starting to make a firm transition to international level and more will follow as England's youth ranks continue to shine in major tournaments.
Yet still, for all of that positivity, something is niggling away suggesting this isn't quite England's time - and the question then should be, if not now, when? Everything should be pointing in the Three Lions favour. They have, after all, proven they can progress into the latter stages of recent tournaments.
The World Cup in 2018, when Kieran Trippier dared us to dream by putting his side ahead in their semi-final clash with Croatia, always felt a step too far. The delayed European Championships, when Luke Shaw putting his side ahead in the final against Italy almost too early, felt like a missed opportunity and still remains that way. Last year's World Cup Finals in Qatar was another chance to bypass England's latest golden generation as a missed penalty and frustrations over decisions made by officials caused disappointment and anger.
So what now? Where do England go from here after another near-perfect qualification for a major tournament? Can Southgate really bring the best out of an unquestionably talented group of players, mould them into a side that balances defensive solidity with attacking intent and deliver a first major men's tournament win since 1966?
The final two qualifiers, when England delivered underwhelming performances in recent days, have failed to quell doubts about Southgate, despite his win percentage as Three Lions boss sitting above the likes of Sir Alf Ramsey, Sir Bobby Robson and the previous leader of a 'golden generation', Sven-Goran Eriksson. Only Fabio Capello, who won 28 of his 42 games and achieved a win percentage of 66.7%, can boast a better success rate than Southgate's 62.9%.
For a number of years, the same questions have failed to be answered. Does Harry Maguire really possess the attributes needed for a centre-back to help his country achieve success at a major tournament and if not, who will replace him? If Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham are to play lead roles in midfield, who completes the trio tasked with seizing control in the middle of the park? Can Trent Alexander-Arnold fill that void against the best in Europe?
Who replaces or provides an alternative to Harry Kane should the Bayern frontman succumb to injury? Can Marcus Rashford find form once again after a difficult start to the season? Will Raheem Sterling, a big game player in major tournaments, be offered a chance to reclaim his place in Southgate's squad and shine on the big stage has he has done in the past?
England have now rounded off their 2023 fixture list and have remained unblemished during the calendar year. Yet time is running out for Southgate to experiment and give himself the best possible chance to assess the probables and possibles for his final squad selection for next summer's tournament.
There are, as it stands, just two friendly fixtures scheduled before the Euro 2024 Finals get underway and they come with high calibre opponents as Belgium and Brazil both visit Wembley in March. That in itself poses a major question for Southgate - does he use the games to hand chances to assess some alternative options or does he use them to fine-tune his starting eleven in preparation for the tournament?
There are several players who seem to be struggling to find game-time under Southgate, despite their impressive form at club level and some promising performances when they have been handed a chance with England at either senior or youth level. The likes of James Maddison, Anthony Gordon, Lewis Dunk and Eberechi Eze all have more than credible claims to be part of the final selection - but will they get an opportunity to impress in March?
On the face of it, England are in a good place and are one of the favourites to win Euro 2024 - but there are questions that need answering before there is a widespread belief this finally their time.