Through 24 matches, EURO 2020 has delivered more than a few solid debate points.
- Is the Netherlands the real deal under Frank de Boer?
- Who’s the true dark horse of the tournament? Sweden? Czech Republic?
- Is Croatia the most frustrating, impossible-to-predict team in Europe when it comes to major tournaments?
England fans will answer that last one, “No, mate, but only because of us.”
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And while there’s no “fix” guaranteed to work, England’s substandard start to the tournament looks to have at least one solution screaming at its manager to try before, “It’s coming home…” becomes “…only because the final is at Wembley and it has to be there when two other teams play for it.”
Gareth Southgate has made a lot of solid decisions in his tenure as England boss, more of them than poor ones to be sure, but it’s oddly reassuring to see a respected-enough coach prove that every … single … coach … on … Earth … will stand by his bad personnel decisions even when they are staring him in the face.
In this case, Southgate is not playing Jadon Sancho as he calls the Borussia Dortmund (and soon-to-be Manchester United?) star one of the side’s “explosive players experiencing a big tournament for the first time.”
It hasn’t hurt Alexander Isak of Sweden. Or Mount.
Sancho has 19 caps for England and 908 minutes, an average of approximately 48 minutes per appearance. The 21-year-old was used in one of England’s two warm-up friendlies in June, missed the Three Lions’ three World Cup qualifiers in March, and made one start amongst his five caps — scoring a goal and an assist — during the two fall international windows.
It’s seemingly not an aversion to “flair players” even if England fans’ usual cries are for Jack Grealish: Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount get plenty of run. And as for the youth question, that’s odd as Mount and Phil Foden both have fewer caps than Sancho.
Here’s a selection of minutes so far at EURO from a very small sample size, but one that has delivered one goal against Croatia and Scotland:
- Sterling, 180 minutes, 1 goal
- Mount, 180 minutes
- Foden, 134 minutes
- Grealish, 27 minutes
- Sancho, 0 minutes
You’re looking for a playmaker, yeah? England’s leaders in key passes per game over two matches are fullbacks, Luke Shaw and Reece James with four. Mount and Sterling have two. Harry Kane one.
Sterling had his goal and a key pass against Croatia, taking one fewer touch (52) than Foden and Kane combined and five more than Mount’s 47.
Furthermore, Kane only managed 19 touches in the 0-0 with Scotland, giving him less than 50 touches on the ball in 164 minutes of EURO 2020.
And, as Andy Edwards pointed out in his “Three things we learned” from that dismal draw, it’s important to get Harry the ball.
Attacking not the plan?
A caveat here: Southgate’s England does not look like a team implementing a plan to “go get it” at a tournament. What this post presupposes is… hopefully he isn’t?
The Three Lions terrific and experienced back line can call upon Kyle Walker, Harry Maguire, John Stones, Tyrone Mings, Luke Shaw, and Kieran Trippier without going to a player under 10 caps and has only allowed a single goal in 2021 (a 2-1 win over Poland at Wembley in World Cup qualifying).
So perhaps we need to say that Southgate has already decided against anything “risky” with his tactics, as the 0-0 with Scotland and 1-0 over Croatia followed:
1-0 over Romania
1-0 over Austria
2-1 over Poland
2-0 over Albania
5-0 over San Marino.
Since Sept. 2020, England has only allowed five goals and boasts a 11W-2D-2L record. Three of those goals came against Belgium. Pretty good.
The case for Sancho (and Grealish)
Now unless you’re of some bizarre opinion that the Bundesliga is closer to some inferior second-tier league in a fourth-tier country, I’ve got news for you.
This is what Sancho does better than just about anyone on the globe, set people up for shots.
Actually, he does almost every attacking thing better than most, but I digress.
When taking the club stats/90 of Mount, Grealish, Sancho, Sterling, and Foden, here’s what we see in the top three of these catagories:
1. Sancho, 0.48
2. Grealish, 0.41
3. Foden, 0.28
1. Grealish, 0.35
2. Sancho, 0.30
3. Mount, 0.24
1. Grealish, 3.42
2. Sancho, 2.93
3. Mount, 2.80
1. Grealish, 6.91
2. Sancho, 6.46
3. Mount, 5.67
1. Grealish, 6.18
2. Sancho, 5.46
3. Mount, 5.08
Now perhaps you look at those and wonder, “Why aren’t you saying Grealish and Sancho?”
Well, maybe I am… or should be? And to be fair, I’d play both.
But in deciding to make the case for Sancho over Grealish, I’ll theorize that the latter’s super impressive numbers are skewed a bit by the entire Aston Villa offense going through him, while Dortmund’s spectacular group of playmakers including Reus, Brandt, Haaland, and even USMNT star Gio Reyna stops Sancho from accumulating loftier figures.
Grealish + Sancho XI for England versus Czech Republic
With England already through and facing a Czech Republic team scored twice against Scotland and once against the Croatians, why not go for it? And maybe (probably not) this was the plan.
Couple of big picture things here: Sam Johnstone has one cap and Aaron Ramsdale zero, so I’d let Jordan Pickford rest even with the group in the balance (preferably for Johnstone) just in case a Pickford injury, illness, or suspension requires a first EURO appearances for either the West Brom or Sheffield United keeper.
I also think you’d love to see Dominic Calvert-Lewin or Marcus Rashford in place of Kane, but given his lack of touches mentioned above and the whole idea of Grealish and Sancho opening up room for Kane… well…
Walker — Stones — Maguire — Shaw
Rice — Phillips
Sancho — Mount — Grealish
There’s an argument for Sterling in that he has tremendous experience, but at this point you have to ask about his big-game production because it is not a small sample size. One goal and two assists in 14 appearances between the World Cup and EURO — the goal coming versus Croatia — plus that glaring miss against Lyon for Man City in last season’s Champions League quarterfinal and nothing in five UCL knockout round appearances this season.
So why hasn’t Sancho played against two sides, Croatia and Scotland, whose defenders are very comfortable with the direct approach?
Unless the answer is, “The boys don’t like him,” — in which case he wouldn’t be in the squad, correct? — then we’re not sure what Southgate is doing besides thinking himself out of a group win.
Or maybe he just doesn’t want to win and have some guy at a pub say, “Hey Gazza… told you you needed to play Sancho.”
Or maybe he’s conspiring with Manchester United to keep Sancho’s price down?
When all of the answers are conspiracy theories, well, you know what to do Mr. Southgate.