Chris Sutton’s England Adventure: Three Lions Eye Euros Glory

Chris Sutton’s England Adventure: Three Lions Eye Euros Glory

Building up to this European Championship, hopes had been high that England could finally break their 58-year trophy drought and come home as champions. A silky smooth qualifying campaign, Bellingham, Kane, Saka, Foden all potential stars of the show in Germany. A manager with experience of tournament football. A team ready to take the final step after near misses. Then came Iceland.

The defeat last Friday at Wembley felt damaging. It knocked the wind out of England’s sails. Our dreams were suddenly shattered. Negativity replaced positivity.

Not so fast, says Chris Sutton, Premier League winner, Mail Sport columnist and my co-host on the It’s All Kicking Off podcast. ‘You are always negative,’ he tells me, half in jest.

‘I actually went to the cricket when England played Iceland but bumped into a load of England fans on the train.

‘They were pretty balanced about things. I couldn’t really care less about England losing that game, honestly.

Mail Sport columnist Chris Sutton, left, runs the rule over England’s prospects at Euro 2024 with It’s All Kicking Off co-host and Football Editor Ian Ladyman, right

Sutton dismissed the importance of England's disappointing loss to Iceland in their last friendly

Sutton dismissed the importance of England’s disappointing loss to Iceland in their last friendly 

‘If they’re going to lose a game, better to lose to Iceland than to Serbia in game one on Sunday. From a player’s perspective, there would have been a lot of them going into that game who were looking ahead to the Euros and the games coming up and were maybe just a little bit tentative with it.

‘It wasn’t a great performance but it doesn’t really change my mind about how they’re going to get on in the tournament.

‘I have concerns over centre back and left back, but in a forward-thinking capacity England are every bit as good as any other team in the tournament.’

There is truth in this. It is worth noting that France, the bookmakers’ second favourites behind England, have just drawn 0-0 at home to Canada. No team are steaming into the Euros leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. ‘It’s the same with a lot of the big hitters,’ Sutton agrees. ‘These are just box-ticking games.’

Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of it, then. Southgate almost says it himself that there are two sides to the team and he thinks that too many people spend a lot of time getting excited about the England side who have the ball and the damage players such as Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, Cole Palmer, Bukayo Sako and Harry Kane can do in forward areas.

But the manager believes there is not enough focus on what we do when we haven’t got the ball. And that is the key. Is that the great danger going into this tournament? That we get derailed when the better teams have the ball, like we did against France in the World Cup?

‘France in the World Cup was a close contest,’ says Sutton. ‘Harry Kane doesn’t usually miss penalties. I’ve seen everybody is talking about England being susceptible to the counter-attack, as they were against Iceland. But that’s a consequence of the way that they play.

‘I look at England’s attacking players and I’m excited, but of course they’ll be susceptible to the counter-attack because that’s the way they set up. Tournament football is about being ruthless and it’s about moments and it’s whether England are on the right side of those moments.’

Sutton believes England's back line is a massive concern, particularly with John Stones' injury hit season

Sutton believes England’s back line is a massive concern, particularly with John Stones’ injury hit season

Kieran Trippier is likely to be selected by Gareth Southgate to start out of position at left back

Kieran Trippier is likely to be selected by Gareth Southgate to start out of position at left back

If some of those moments come in defence then it is worth pointing out that Sutton had thought Harry Maguire should not play in the last World Cup in Qatar, when England performed admirably before falling to eventual runners-up France.

So presumably he is not worried by his absence in Germany? He is happy with a back four of Kyle Walker, John Stones, Marc Guehi and Kieran Trippier, who is out of position at left back. No nerves at all, Chris?

‘Well, Gareth has changed a bit this time,’ admits Sutton. ‘He has picked players on form rather than by reputation. But I think the back line is a massive concern. John Stones’ season is a bit of a worry.

‘The fact that he’s been injury prone and is now unwell. Guehi, in terms of tournament football, is not tried and tested. So I would have Maguire in the team now!

‘But it’s about other players taking the opportunity. With Kieran Trippier at left back the side will also lack balance. If Southgate’s team get through the group stage, the big boys will be looking to exploit England defensively. I don’t think it’s a high quality backline.’

And maybe that explains why Southgate seems to be so adamant about sticking with two holding midfielders — the area of selection that causes the most debate, that leads to accusations of negativity and handbrakes being on.

Hopes of the manager being braver and having one pivot — to use that modern phrase — in front of the back four are dead. It will be 4-2-3-1. The classic Southgate formation.

But who will that player be? Who will feature next to Declan Rice against Serbia? There is an argument that we are talking about game one and it is vital not to lose it. England do not have to play adventurous football to win that game.

A key question heading into the tournament is who will start alongside Declan Rice in midfield

A key question heading into the tournament is who will start alongside Declan Rice in midfield

Conor Gallagher, left, and Adam Wharton, right, are contenders to add extra protection for the defence

Conor Gallagher, left, and Adam Wharton, right, are contenders to add extra protection for the defence

Conor Gallagher could be the right man. That is something I thought I’d never write. But he offers ‘legs’, protection, endeavour.

It is the one area that is truly up for debate, and Southgate is not a particularly negative manager. He has done a pretty fine job. But the negativity accusation is thrown at him.

The argument for playing two holding midfielders may well be rooted in the knowledge that he has a back four who don’t necessarily make him feel that comfortable. So a bit of added protection makes sense. The options are Manchester United’s breakthrough star Kobbie Mainoo and Crystal Palace’s Adam Wharton, who had a great half-hour against Bosnia and looks like a fine player.

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But that cameo was against a team who were getting tired. And in game one, a match against Serbia in which a 1-0 victory would be a superb result, the industry and conscientious play that Gallagher offers makes him well worth considering. He is not an exciting player but is he the answer on Sunday?

‘There is a lot of negativity about this 4-2-3-1 set-up,’ says Sutton. ‘But I have a slightly different solution to playing Gallagher.

‘This isn’t being kamikaze in any way but I would like to get Cole Palmer into the team. I know you love Palmer. You’ve banged on about him all season. You went early with him and were proven right, even though he scored 46 penalties (nine actually, Chris!).

‘He has been brilliant for Chelsea and you can play Jude Bellingham alongside Rice.

‘It doesn’t have to be so rigid. We have become consumed with formations and systems when the difference between 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 is about 10 yards. Players are adaptable. Bellingham is a highly intelligent footballer and he can play any role in there.

Jude Bellingham adaptability was highlighted as a key asset by Sutton ahead of the Euros

Jude Bellingham adaptability was highlighted as a key asset by Sutton ahead of the Euros

Sutton suggested Bellingham dropping deeper could allow Cole Palmer to play at No 10

Sutton suggested Bellingham dropping deeper could allow Cole Palmer to play at No 10

‘This formation would allow Palmer to play in the No 10 position and then you have Saka and Foden right and left. Obviously, you’ve got to get Foden into the team.’

So, does Sutton think it was right to leave Jack Grealish out of the squad? If we are talking about form, it was an obvious decision — Grealish had none.

‘I totally get the argument that he is a guy who can still change a game,’ Sutton says. ‘But if you’re looking at consistency throughout the season, game time, the fact that Pep Guardiola didn’t throw him on in the FA Cup final… there’s something there which doesn’t feel right.

‘Can Grealish affect the game? Of course he can. Is he a little bit different? Yes, he is. But I like Eberechi Eze and the way he’s played at Crystal Palace. Anthony Gordon at Newcastle has been a revelation this season.

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‘I wouldn’t have been too upset had Grealish been in the squad. But based on just this last season, Gordon has performed better than Grealish. Hence why he deserves the opportunity. And so does Eze.’

The Grealish-less England squad have appeared relaxed since their arrival in Germany, mixing with the locals and playing head tennis. But the pressure must be ramping up, and surely the nerves won’t have been helped by the Iceland hiccup.

‘If I was a player there, I would be looking at the Iceland game purely as a blip,’ says Sutton, ‘and I’d be looking at the players in and around me at training in Germany and thinking, “Blimey, if everything clicks, we have a real chance. But we’ve got to make sure we’re at the level”.

‘Gareth said the Iceland game would help them refocus, that it was a kick up the backside. That may seem quite basic, but that’s good. If you’re going to lose a game, you’re better to lose the game before the start of the tournament. I would be thinking that we’ve got a bad game out of the way and now let’s crack on with the real stuff.’

Jack Grealish's lack of form made it an obvious decision for Southgate to leave out the winger

Jack Grealish’s lack of form made it an obvious decision for Southgate to leave out the winger

Southgate claimed the loss to Iceland was a kick up the backside ahead of the tournament

Southgate claimed the loss to Iceland was a kick up the backside ahead of the tournament

It is true that, if England had beaten Iceland 6-0, people like me would have been writing stories saying we’re going to win the Euros. And then if we’d gone to Germany and lost the first game, people like me would have been accusing the players of being too cocky for thinking that they’re going to win the Euros.

‘Yeah! You have to stay level, don’t you? And treat those two imposters, triumph and disaster, just the same,’ says Sutton.

‘I’ve always felt like that. And I’m sure that is the way most of the England players are thinking. It’s about hitting that level of performance. I look at England’s attackers and think if it clicks there are going to be a lot of teams in a lot of trouble.’

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Scotland’s form has fallen off a cliff, but they can still lead hosts a merry dance at Euro 2024

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One team in trouble on day one could be Scotland. They meet hosts Germany in Munich on Friday evening to kick off the tournament.

There was criticism in some quarters, not least this one, about the way they played against England in a friendly last autumn. But the fact is their qualification campaign was almost perfect. Steve Clarke is a likeable manager doing a fine job, as Scotland’s qualifying win against Spain showed.

He’s a sensible, bright manager. The Germany game will be difficult but they can still get out of the group.

Four points from the other two games and they have half a chance, although Hungary, with Dominik Szoboszlai pulling the strings, will be strong. The Swiss, with Granit Xhaka fresh from a stellar season with Bayer Leverkusen, make up the group.

‘It’s a tall order,’ concedes Sutton. ‘People will look at their recent form and look at Scotland going into the Euros and not feel so bullish and confident. They’ve got issues at centre half. Just like England, it’s a big area of concern.

Steve Clarke's Scotland side will get the Euros underway when they face hosts Germany

Steve Clarke’s Scotland side will get the Euros underway when they face hosts Germany

Scotland will be aiming to put a poor run of form behind them when the tournament begins

Scotland will be aiming to put a poor run of form behind them when the tournament begins

‘It will be two from Jack Hendry, Scott McKenna, Ryan Porteous and Grant Hanley. Is that good enough for the top level? But I look at their midfield and think, “Blimey, they have good players”. John McGinn, Scott McTominay, Callum McGregor’s a terrific player. Billy Gilmour’s a really nice footballer.

‘They’ve got a difficult opening game but I wouldn’t totally underestimate Scotland. But if pushed I suppose I’ve got to say I think Scotland will struggle to get out of that group.’

Right, enough debate. It’s prediction time. Will England go all the way?

‘I’m afraid I don’t see it,’ Sutton says. ‘I’ll go for England as losing semi-finalists.’

And for once, I think I agree with him.

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