England have already qualified for Euro 2024, which affords manager Gareth Southgate a rare opportunity during this round of fixtures. Cynics would say matches with Malta and North Macedonia are a formality any way. But with England’s place at the European Championships assured, these final two qualifiers are even less threatening. Southgate can and should use these games to expand his horizons.
It is not unfair to say that any combination of the squad selected by Southgate for these qualifiers would likely beat Malta and North Macedonia. You could even argue the head coach could have been a bit more ambitious with his wider squad selection, considering how well he knows some of these players already and the low stakes involved.
Circumstances have offered Southgate more chances to experiment than he had previously. Lewis Dunk, Callum Wilson and James Maddison have withdrawn from the squad through injury. England have seen players with 17 total caps withdraw, so not core members of Southgate’s long-term set-up. But when you consider the fact that the three replacements are all yet to win a senior England cap, it does offer an exciting opportunity.
Players like Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson and Harry Kane are as intrinsic to England as the three lions that adorn the badge. With 227 caps between them, Southgate knows exactly what he is getting from that trio. Does he earn anything by labouring them too hard over these coming games?
England’s ambitions at Euro 2024 will hinge not just on the first choice eleven but on the squad as a whole. It is in Southgate’s best interests to get as many players as possible well-versed in his side. Palmer has earned his chance with some excellent performances for Chelsea. Aston Villa fans will tell you Konsa has deserved this for a while. Rico Lewis is perhaps the most deserving call-up of all, having accomplished that rare feat of going from homegrown player to important part of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City plans. Palmer himself will tell you how hard that transition is to make.
There are others within this squad who deserve their shot too. Fikayo Tomori having just four caps when he has excelled in Serie A for two-and-a-half seasons is shocking. Levi Colwill’s excellent loan at Brighton & Hove Albion and increasing importance to Chelsea make him a fine candidate to expand on his single cap. Up front England have deep issues when Kane is unavailable. Ollie Watkins can help ease the burden on him, with the rest of the squad composed of wide forwards. Three goals in eight caps is a fine return from the Villa man. Kane is a known quantity. Getting his teammates used to dovetailing with Watkins is an opportunity England should take.
There are other areas of rotation that should be exploited too. Jordan Pickford has proven his worth over 56 caps. The other keepers in the squad, Sam Johnstone and Aaron Ramsdale, have just eight appearances between them. Why not give them a game each to prove their credentials?
Marc Guehi, Conor Gallagher and Jarrod Bowen are all England players who would benefit from a little more first team action. Nobody is suggesting the Three Lions should take these qualifiers lightly. But would naming the players we’ve spoken about as starters really qualify as taking Malta and North Macedonia lightly? These are week-in-week-out Premier League stars. They just aren’t the ones Southgate favours. It’s time to expand England’s palette and there is no time like the present.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change