How Do England Use Their Best Players?

Are you even an England fan at all if you haven’t suggested at least 469 different formations for the Three Lions at this tournament? Probably not. Every pundit, commentator, co-commentator, ex-pro and exactly 96.4% of supporters on social media have let the world know how they would set Gareth Southgate’s side up at Euro 2024. We’ve seen some interesting XIs too, with Bukayo Saka at wing-back, Kyle Walker playing as one of two centre backs, and an all-out-attacking front six just some of the more out-there options.

England undoubtedly have a fine selection of attacking players, although the hype they receive rather ignores the fact that the likes of France, Portugal and (not least) Spain also have an incredible collection of young stars too. But how does Southgate go about using his starlets to create a winning team? And, how does he get the best out of them?

England fans of a certain age will remember all too well the dilemma faced by more than one England manager of how to get Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard into the same team whilst still getting the best out of both of them. There was also Paul Scholes to consider and try as they might, no Three Lions boss was able to accommodate all three world-class midfielders in a way that worked. But how can England, the 2024 vintage, get the very best out of the likes of today’s big names like Foden and Bellingham?

There is no doubt that England genuinely have several world-class players. Bellingham won the Golden Boy award and the Kopa Trophy in 2023, guided Real Madrid to a Champions League and La Liga double in 2023/24 and was named the La Liga Player of the Season to boot.

Foden already has more major honours than the vast majority of pros will garner in their whole careers, and like Bellingham that includes a Champions League/league title double. The Man City star has won the Premier League Young Player award twice, and in 2023/24, when he notched 27 goals in 52 matches, plus 12 assists, was named the Premier League Player of the Season and the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year.

Beyond those two we have Cole Palmer, who recorded 33 PL goal involvements in 34 games last term. He looked lively when coming on for the last 20 minutes against Slovenia in England’s final group game. Not to mention Bukayo Saka and Declan Rice, ranked as the sixth and 10th most valuable players in the world by Transfermarkt, and players like Jack Grealish, a £100m Champions League winner who couldn’t even make the squad this time around.

Bellingham and Foden: Two No. 10s?

Phil Foden
Phil Foden (canno73 via Bigstockphoto)

Where is it going wrong for England and what can they do? We don’t want to look at England’s coaching or Southgate’s role too much in this piece. Nor do we want to consider age-old factors such as whether Three Lions stars arrive at tournaments tired. We certainly do not want to provide another click-bait style “This is the England XI to win the Euros” article.

In fact, we do not really want to consider Euro 2024 at all, but instead, more broadly consider how Southgate or any other England boss can best use the players we have already mentioned. The most obvious conundrum might seem to be the issue that in Foden and Bellingham England have two elite number 10s, both of whom want to play centrally behind Harry Kane.

In our opinion this is something of a non-issue, chiefly because Bellingham has rarely been used as a number 10 during his whole career. His famous 22 shirt number, at Birmingham and Borussia Dortmund, was derived from the fact that he could operate as a 4, an 8, or a 10 and he clearly has the ability and intelligence to be a defensive midfielder, a box-to-box powerhouse, or a more forward-thinking, creative tool.

Carlo Ancelotti has used him, with great success, in a range of more advanced positions for Real Madrid. But that does not mean he is now automatically a number 10. The key point here is that he has the ability to play in an area where England’s options are more limited. If he played alongside Rice they could operate as a fairly traditional midfield duo, taking it in turns to attack and defend, or alternatively one or both could play more defensively as needed.

Foden is flexible in relation to position too and he can operate in a deeper midfield role, or as one of the wide players in a front three. However, he is clearly best suited to playing centrally, with his tendency to drift in from the flank when used wide meaning England are often too narrow. So for us, it has to be Bellingham playing in central midfield, and Foden operating behind a striker.

What About the Left Flank?

Anthony Gordon
Anthony Gordon (Ardfern via Wikipedia)

It is hard to see why Anthony Gordon was not used at all in the opening two games of Euro 2024. He was only given a few minutes of game time in the third and final group game, not enough to make an impact. He offers pace and, crucially, holds the width really well. He also makes runs in behind defenders and along with him hugging the touchline, this really creates space for the rest of the side.

In 2023/24, he managed double figures for both goals and assists in the Premier League for Newcastle and he is improving quickly with regular games. With him and Saka operating, England have enviable pace, width and, crucially, goals.

What About Palmer?

Cole Palmer
Cole Palmer (Tumford14 via Wikipedia)

Palmer had a superb season for Chelsea before Euro 2024 and, like Gordon, can count himself unlucky not to have got onto the pitch in England’s first two games. But he did show very positive glimpses in the third game and he is a possible starter in the Round of 16. If he maintains this level of performance England might not have two, but three number 10s. That would be even more the case if Adam Wharton and Kobbie Mainoo continue their impressive development, providing midfielders that would allow Bellingham to play further forward.

However, England, their fans, and the manager need to remember that this is a good problem to have. Palmer, like the other players discussed, can play in different positions, and the youngster’s finishing means that he could even operate as the main striker. His ability to press would certainly give England more in that sense than they get from Kane, although Palmer could be used wide as well.

In short, having finished at the top of the group and thus avoided some of the biggest hitters like Spain, France and Germany (who are in the other half of the draw), things look good for England. And, if Southgate can get the best out of his young stars, things could get even better very soon!