The Everton and Newcastle stars entering Gareth Southgate's England last chance saloon

Jarrad Branthwaite, Anthony Gordon and Ezri Konsa have been given their first and last chance to impress for England ahead of Euro 2024 - can they take it?
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The swinging doors of Gareth Southgate’s Last Chance Saloon squeak shut as three shadowy figures blot out the light filtering into the dusty bar. The piano player stops. Every player in the room turns to stare warily at the new arrivals – who slowly tip back their fedoras to reveal themselves as Jarrad Branthwaite, Anthony Gordon and Ezri Konsa, the three debutants in the final England squad to be named before Euro 2024.

The saloon is a busy one, and far busier than its landlord would have liked. With a string of regulars injured, Southgate will have no choice but to look past his conservative instincts and select unfamiliar faces for the games against Belgium and Brazil which take place on 23 and 26 March respectively. Branthwaite, Gordon and Konsa will have a very short window to show their new international manager what they’re capable of, but with so many fitness doubts ahead of the summer, a good display will give them every chance of making the cut for Germany.

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The defence, in particular, will have a very unfamiliar feel about it. Luke Shaw, Marc Guéhi, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kieran Trippier, Levi Colwill and Reece James will all miss out with fitness issues of varying severity, while Harry Maguire and Ben Chilwell make the squad despite recent injury issues. A combination of established players who are all but guaranteed their place in the side if they’re available and younger guns who have, at least, already had a chance to stake their claim - but all of which will be looking warily over their shoulders at the new caps.

They have set a pretty high bar in recent times, both for England and with their respective Premier League sides. Branthwaite and Konsa will know that as well as Maguire, Stones and likely both Guéhi and Colwill, they are also behind Brighton centre-half Lewis Dunk in the present pecking order. Barring injuries, it is unlikely that more than one of them will make the final 23. This is a job interview that makes going on The Apprentice look like a cakewalk.

Joe Gomez, too, can stake an unexpected claim. After a long spell on the fringes at Anfield, he has played some of the best football of his career in recent weeks as a stop-gap selection at centre-half, left-back and as a holding midfielder. That kind of versatility is potentially critical in a tournament squad, so he may well have the best shot of all the ‘new’ call-ups at actually making it onto Southgate’s list.

But the competition will be fierce. Branthwaite has grown enormously in stature this season – metaphorically rather than literally, as he was already a towering figure – and has notably improved his composure on the ball and distribution in recent matches. That may be crucial for his chances of making the Euros squad, as Southgate wants his defenders playing the ball out from the back rather than getting it downfield quickly, as Sean Dyche prefers Branthwaite to do at Everton.

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Konsa is probably the longest shot to make it onto the plane, but he has all the qualities Southgate wants in his centre-halves – he’s good on the ball, has impressive technique and a good passing range, and judges his tackles very nicely. If he can shine in training, then perhaps he can force his way into the reckoning, but it will take something special. Nobody could argue that he hasn't earned a chance to give it a go, though.

The chances are that at least one or two of these players will only earn limited minutes in the friendly matches, and the chances are equally high that people will grumble that said players hadn’t been given a fair shake by Southgate – but it’s in the training sessions that they will prove their worth. If Branthwaite or Konsa are relegated to a cameo, they simply didn’t do enough at St. George’s Park, and it was a similar logic which saw Eddie Nketiah given only the briefest chance to actually play for England in a match situation over the winter. Given the standards Southgate can reasonably expect from his side, it would be no great shock if one of the fresh faces doesn't impress sufficiently.

It will be interesting to see what Southgate does at full-back, too. With Shaw out and potentially struggling to be ready for the summer and Chilwell never far from another knock, Southgate would dearly have loved to see what Colwill could do at left-back, but has had the opportunity taken away from him. Gomez may get a chance there, or even on the right, where three of the obvious contenders for the spot are out. Konsa has played right-back in the past too, and could be given some minutes in lieu of Kyle Walker.

Further forward, the omission of Kalvin Phillips offers a major opportunity for someone to come in and back up Jordan Henderson, the likely starter, in midfield. Southgate has not, however, called anyone up specifically to do that job. Conor Gallagher will probably get the chance to show what he’s capable of in a slightly deeper role than the one in which he plays for Chelsea, but beyond that Southgate may actually experiment for once. Might he try another attacking midfielder like Cole Palmer alongside Jude Bellingham and leave Declan Rice in a deeper role, if only to see what happens? Perhaps, but don’t be too shocked if Rice and Henderson start both matches side by side as Southgate looks for continuation and the breeding of familiarity in his midfield. This close to a major tournament, Southgate will not be looking for change if he can possibly avoid it.

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It is a shame that Phillips has struggled so badly to rediscover his form since moving on loan to West Ham United. 18 long months propping up the bench at the Etihad has clearly knocked his confidence into the dirt and there is a thick layer of rust covering large portions of his game. It is perhaps even more of a shame that Rico Lewis, the obvious long-term pretender to Henderson’s place, has barely played for Manchester City since he made his England debut in November. Lewis has been omitted from the squad and that is presumably the end of his Euro 2024 ambitions, and likely Phillips' too.

Further forward, one last question that demands an answer can be found at left wing. Phil Foden probably has the starter’s job on lockdown at this stage, but with Marcus Rashford way out of form and Jack Grealish unfit and enduring his own struggles in the Premier League, this is the perfect chance for Gordon to make his name in an England shirt.

Gordon has been superb this season, offering a direct threat which has been missing from Grealish’s game since Pep Guardiola remoulded him and from Rashford since last season. He could easily displace those more senior names from the final squad with a good week in training and on the pitch, and one suspects that many supporters would have him in their teams were the final list to be submitted today. All season long, Gordon has outplayed more storied players, and now he gets his chance to prove that he is a better pick than they are.

Southgate probably didn’t want to be running quite so many experiments next week. He probably wanted one last chance to drill his first-choice players into their roles and to see what the nearly-men could do with half an hour of football here and there. Instead, a lengthy string of injuries has forced him to look down the depth chart – but in giving some young, uncapped or simply out-of-favour players their opportunity, he is also going to develop a much clearer idea of his back-up plans should fitness problems persist into June. That can’t be a bad thing.

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Branthwaite will be back again if he doesn’t make the grade this time. Konsa is in his prime years and could force his way into the reckoning after the Euros with a fair wind behind him. We surely haven’t seen the last of Gordon with three lions on his chest. Gomez could maintain his uptick in form and remain in the reckoning. But what Southgate needs to know is whether or not, right now, these guys are ready to do the job if others can’t make it to Germany. With two very tough games on the horizon, we’ll soon find out.

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