As Gareth Southgate acknowledged in his live interview with Gary Lineker not long after the final whistle, England’s victory over Ukraine in Rome last Saturday provoked a “strange feeling”. It was not only because his side had eased through to a second semi-final in succession at a major tournament with a thumping 4-0 win.
“I’m actually just thinking at this moment of the lads we didn’t get on the pitch,” said England’s manager. “Because the likes of Conor Coady, Ben Chilwell, Sam Johnstone, Aaron Ramsdale – they are the ones that are making this team successful because the spirit of the group is phenomenal.
“Whoever comes in does the job; whoever isn’t in [it] is really difficult. I have to leave three out of the squad every time, and the squad mentality has been fantastic. So at the moment that’s uppermost in my mind – looking after those guys.”
No one wants to feel like a spare part. Yet five of England’s 26-man squad – the four named by Southgate and Brighton’s Ben White – have not featured at Euro 2020, and Southgate is not the only member of the coaching staff to have singled out their contribution. When his assistant Steve Holland was this week asked to name his player of the tournament so far, his choice of Coady was an indication of the important role being played by England’s squad members.
“He’s not got on the pitch yet but on the training pitch he gives everything,” Holland told BBC Radio 5 Live. “In the dressing room before the game, he speaks like he’s captain, despite the fact that he’s not been on the pitch yet, which is incredibly difficult to do.”
Holland was assistant to José Mourinho and Antonio Conte among others at Chelsea before joining England on a permanent basis in 2017, having worked with Southgate for three years with the under-21s. He compared the contribution of Coady and co to that of John Terry in Chelsea’s 2014-15 Premier League-winning side under Conte when the captain made only nine appearances because of the established back three comprising César Azpilicueta, Gary Cahill and David Luiz.
“It was probably the hardest season he ever had because he always plays,” Hol land said. “But it was a selfless approach towards what was best for the team, not ‘What’s best for me here?’ That’s not easy to do. And we have some really good examples of players who are going down that road, which is inspirationalll. I mentioned Conor but there are others. And when you put that into the melting pot that’s a powerful, powerful group that we have.”
Uefa rules mean that three members of the squad must be sacrificed on each matchday, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Chilwell and White the unfortunate trio for the semi-final against Denmark after Reece James, Bukayo Saka and White again missed out against Ukraine. Deciding which players will miss out on the historic final – the first for an England men’s side since 1966 – is likely to be one of Southgate’s biggest headaches over the coming hours.
“I’m spending more energy thinking about the three I have to leave out of the 26 because they’re all good players; none of them deserve to be left out,” he said after the Ukraine game. “They’re all giving everything in training so none of it is because I don’t think they’re up to the level.”
Southgate returned to the theme after the semi-final: “They’ve set the benchmark and it’s created a culture and a feeling among the group that there is that genuine togetherness and excitement for each other and they are all in a final now.”