Newcastle star's claim show why England's 'pick on form' brigade should be careful what they wish for

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The Three Lions lost 1-0 to Iceland at Wembley on Friday evening, in their last friendly before Euro 2024

Nobody panic. I’m sure major international tournament winners lose their final warm-up friendly to nations approximately half as populated as the state of Alaska all the time. Or, at least, for the sake of my jangling pipe dreams, I hope they do.

On Friday, England left port for Euro 2024 with a 1-0 defeat at the hands of little old Iceland. Generally speaking, you’re supposed smash a bottle of wine on the exterior of the hull, not put a hole right through it. The Three Lions put in a stodgy performance against a side quite content to frustrate and stifle, and while on another day the likes of Harry Kane and Cole Palmer would perhaps have buried various gilded sitters that fell their way, this was still a worrying indictment of the foamy bluntness that can occasionally hamper Gareth Southgate’s attack.

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The common consensus was that this was England at their impotent, lacklustre worst, and if there was a time to coast into the dour jaws of an embarrassing hiccup, nine days before the opening fixture of a tournament that many believe they are among the favourites to win is certainly not it.

But for a smattering of experiments, this was arguably England’s strongest XI. Aaron Ramsdale, probably somewhat at fault for Iceland’s early winner, replaced undisputed number one Jordan Pickford in goal, while Jude Bellingham (who didn’t join up with the squad until the weekend, following his Champions League final exertions with Real Madrid) and Bukayo Saka missed out as Anthony Gordon and the aforementioned Palmer were given further minutes to impress, Mostly, however, this was the Three Lions in full regalia. Which is concerning.

It also raises a couple of questions on the wisdom of picking players solely based on their form at club level alone. In many respects, Gordon’s post-match comments were the perfect illustration of this point.

Speaking at Wembley, the Newcastle United winger said: "Friendly or not, playing for England you want to win every game. I thought it was useful practice for us though. I thought we controlled the game and got into some good positions but just a lack of quality in the final third. I think for me personally I've trained once in four weeks so I felt a little rusty. I think the front four or three haven't played together yet. It's just getting used to each other and the more time we train together we'll be fine."

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While the 23-year-old was a rare bright spark against Iceland, he and others around him are still having to adapt to life at senior international level. Make no mistake, meritocracy has to play its part in England’s squad selection. That should go without saying. But the unfortunate byproduct of a meritocratic process is that occasionally the Three Lions are going to be left with inexperienced talents who need time to adjust to playing on the grandest stage of them all. With a European Championship campaign now beginning in less than a week, that brings with it a certain amount of inherent risk.

Another case in point is Harry Maguire. The Manchester United defender will, of course, not travel to Germany due to injury. For a long while now, he has dealt with his fair share of detractors and naysayers, but in an England shirt, he has rarely put a foot wrong, and it is hard to shake the feeling that Southgate’s defence is a much more rickety operation for his absence. Pure meritocracy would suggest that dear old Slabhead should be nowhere near the Three Lions’ starting XI, and yet, without him, they are a worse side.

This is the tricky balance that Southgate is constantly striving to strike; trusted presences with exciting fresh blood, seasoned veterans and emerging stars of tomorrow. To misjudge the ratio even slightly could be to derail his project entirely. Here’s hoping that Friday’s defeat was a blip, rather than a sign that the England manager has got something fundamentally wrong.

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