England’s final two qualifiers of the campaign to reach Euro 2024 next summer confirmed one indisputable fact: there are four ‘untouchables’ in the team that Gareth Southgate cannot do without.
They are: Harry Kane, Jude Bellingham, Declan Rice and John Stones. Without any of that quartet England are not the same. They go from one of the two or three strong favourites to win next summer, along with France and Portugal, to merely contenders.
In theory, Southgate’s first-choice line-up is fairly set. If everyone is fit and playing, it will likely be a 4-2-3-1 formation: Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire, Shaw; Phillips, Rice; Saka, Bellingham, Rashford; Kane.
Eight of those players are pretty much nailed-on. The doubts? Luke Shaw at left-back because of his fitness issues, which may allow Kieran Trippier or Ben Chilwell (if he can get fit) in, midfielder Kalvin Phillips, who needs to secure a move away from Manchester City in the January transfer to gain some playing time, and on the left Marcus Rashford, who faces strong challenges from Phil Foden, in particular, and Jack Grealish, and maybe now even Cole Palmer.
Harry Maguire is fortunate to have kept his place and needs to play far better than he did against North Macedonia. Otherwise, he will lose out to Marc Guehi or Lewis Dunk. There will be those who argue Aaron Ramsdale should be considered in goal ahead of Jordan Pickford, but that is no contest, especially if Ramsdale continues to sit on the bench at Arsenal.
They put into perspective the claim England should walk it in Germany
And then there are the Golden Quartet; the Fab Four; the Irreplaceables. England are just not the same without them. Their presence is transformative and puts into perspective the optimistic claim this is somehow England’s strongest-ever squad, who should be walking it in Germany next year.
Of course every side has its core that makes the difference, but what is undeniable for England is the difference those four make to every department on the pitch – from defence, through midfield, to the trio of forward-minded players behind the main striker. It means they are even more important. It is not, say, a pair of strikers or a couple of midfielders. It is the spine.
Without Stones, England’s defence simply lacks the confidence required at the highest level to bring the ball out and pass into midfield. His partnership with Maguire now goes back more than five years and, while the Manchester United centre-half might have originally been its senior player, that is no longer the case.
The worry is Stones has started to suffer injuries that have limited his appearances for City, which is all the more frustrating given how well the 29-year-old is playing and the maturity he has shown to adapt to a role stepping into midfield under Pep Guardiola.
Similarly, Rice is raising his game to the elite level – and not just because he has secured his £105million move from West Ham United to Arsenal. The 24-year-old has eclipsed Phillips, when it appeared the latter was more central to England in the last Euros. Guardiola must surely be regretting signing Phillips and not him in July 2022. City again tried for Rice last summer but baulked at the price, while it also became clear he was far progressed in his decision to join Arsenal.
For England it is evidently a case of Rice and Bellingham plus one, or Rice plus one if – as is now likely – Bellingham plays as a No 10.
The options are limited – Jordan Henderson is struggling to justify his squad inclusion since moving to Saudi Arabia, Phillips does not play for his club and Trent Alexander-Arnold is yet to fully convince he can play as part of the ‘double pivot’ that Southgate favours, while James Ward-Prowse is out of favour. Maybe Rico Lewis?
It means that, as with Stones in defence, England would be in real trouble without Rice. Tthe difference he makes was there with the drive he brought coming on as a substitute in the side’s leaden performance against Malta.
Bellingham is world class, even aged 20. It is just whether Southgate moves him back into playing as an ‘eight’ or keeps him in the No 10 role, as he has filled to such devastating effect since his move to Real Madrid. Bellingham enhances England and would do any team in the world, frankly. The goal threat is diminished without him.
If Bellingham were absent there is a case to argue that Foden could step in although, as Southgate has debated, he does not really play there for City regularly. Foden did so impressively in coming on in the Champions League final, but Guardiola prefers to deploy Julian Alvarez. And there is no way Foden offers the same goal contribution at present as Bellingham.
Then there is Kane who, at 30, has been raising his game to new heights since the move to Bayern Munich. Southgate will be pleased his captain will play at least four fewer league games – 34 as opposed to 38 in the more intense Premier League – and will be afforded a proper winter break in Germany.
England obviously cannot do without Kane. Despite performing so well in the Premier League, the likes of Ollie Watkins and Callum Wilson have not taken their opportunities to prove they can at least be a convincing understudy to him. Dominic Calvert-Lewin remains in the reckoning if he can stay fit, while Southgate has name-checked Ivan Toney, who returns from his ban for betting in January. The Brentford striker is in his thinking.
A disappointment of the past two games and the recent friendly against Australia is that few outside Southgate’s apparent first-choice XI have pushed their claim. Rashford has also suddenly become more of a concern. Having done well for England in October, he has unfortunately brought his poor United form to international duty.
But he is replaceable. The Golden Quartet are not.