Early in the competition, Gareth Southgate had been accused of playing it safe in his squad selection, but his brave shifting of systems and personnel has allowed a flexible England to flourish – and has alleviated some tired Premier League legs, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.
On Saturday morning, word came out that Jadon Sancho was in line to make his first start for England at Euro 2020. Whilst jokes abounded that his recently announced switch to Manchester United was what had finally made him eligible for a place in the starting XI, it was a striking shift. Before his 90 minutes on Saturday, Sancho had played just seven minutes over the four games, leading many to assume that the forward was simply not part of Gareth Southgate’s plans. After all, there are not many players who get handed their first international tournament start when they reach the last eight.
Choosing to start Sancho demonstrated how central squad unity has been to Southgate at Euro 2020. His quarter-final post-match comments once again emphasised his appreciation of the players who have not made it onto the pitch, or even into the squad.
“It’s so difficult to keep a group of this size involved, happy, feeling valued,” Southgate said after England’s 4-0 win over Ukraine.
“And yet those guys have been phenomenal in the way they’ve sacrificed themselves for the group and the way they’ve understood the importance of the group. We’re in a semi-final because of that spirit.”
The enlarged squad sizes at Euro 2020 have forced managers to leave three players out of each match day squad, with UEFA mandating that there must be two goalkeepers on the substitutes bench. This means that, in this tournament, there aren’t only players feeling frustrated by being kept on the bench; there are now players who miss out on the bench altogether, and are left in the stands. Yet Southgate has worked hard to rotate those three players who miss out each time, and has made sure that most players have had a fair shot.
After all, Sancho is not the only player to benefit from Southgate’s rotation. Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish, Reece James, Kieran Trippier, and Tyrone Mings have all made starts this tournament without being the names who would make up what you might presume is Southgate’s preferred XI. Ben Chilwell was also supposedly in line to start against the Czech Republic before he was forced to self-isolate due to contact with Billy Gilmour.
Noticeably, though, these rotations have not been about getting everyone on the pitch for the sake of it. Some have come as a result of injury or illness: Mings whilst Maguire was getting back to full fitness, or Grealish coming in when Mount was self-isolating, for example. But others have been a response to the tactical demands of England’s opponents, such as using Kieran Trippier at left-back against Croatia to bring some added experience, or Bukayo Saka to torment Jan Boril like he had for Arsenal in the Europa league.
This is different from the way England have used their squads in the past. At the 2018 World Cup, there were wholesale changes for the dead rubber final group game against Belgium. Other than that, Southgate only made one alteration to his settled starting XI across the five games, when Ruben Loftus-Cheek was brought in for the injured Dele Alli against Panama.
Similarly, at Euro 2016 under Roy Hodgson, six players were swapped out for the final group game before five were returned for the Round of 16 loss to Iceland. At the 2014 World Cup, nine changes were made for the final group game because England were already out.
It is understandable that managers want to give as many of their squad as possible an opportunity to play, but being brought on for the matches that do not matter (particularly if you are already out of a competition) can hardly do much more than cement your status as the second-string player. Instead, rotating in a couple of players for each game, whether out of necessity or for tactical reasons, reinforces much more that you are part of a squad.
When comparing England to the other semi-final sides, we can see a variety of different approaches from the other nations.
Spain have used their squad almost identically to England, with Luis Enrique making a couple of changes per game on average – although he only took 24 players and both their knockout games have gone to extra time.
Italy have rotated their squad the most, mainly as a result of Roberto Mancini switching his side up for their final group game against Wales, which even included handing minutes to back-up goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu.
England’s semi-final opponents Denmark, meanwhile, have the most fixed squad, having used only 15 starters and averaging only one squad-change per match.
Euro 2020 has been a unique tournament for – amongst other things – its increase in squad size. Looking at the way Southgate has used it now, it is hard to imagine him being at the tournament with only 23 players. However, the ways in which he has rotated the team, coupled with the fact England have not had a game go beyond 90 minutes, has surely gone a long way to help a squad who started the tournament having played more minutes this season than any other country.
Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph