Monday, June 10, 2024

England Rocked By Iceland

It was a most unfriendly friendly at Wembley Stadium on Friday when England’s tune-up for the upcoming Euros showed a squad seemingly not ready to face the giants of Europe in less than two weeks. A 1-0 loss to Iceland, ranked 72nd in the world, revived painful memories of England’s elimination from Euro 2016 at the hands of the small nation. This was just a friendly, but highlighted there is much work to do before England can be taken seriously as a Euro 2024 contender.

The Three Lions were able to manage just one shot on target at Wembley. Supporters, of course, will question Southgate’s squad selections which saw former England stars such as Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish left off this current version representing God and country. The midfield combination of Kobbie Mainoo and Declan Rice did not mesh and the 19-year-old Mainoo was caught out of position on the Iceland goal. Mainoo could see his place taken by Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher. Gallagher went unused against Iceland after playing 90 minutes versus Bosnia & Herzegovina. Trent Alexander-Arnold could also be in play to move in beside Rice but that seems a risky move in front of a shaky back line. Alexander-Arnold offers intriguing offensive possibilities but has never been a strong defender.

Emerging Crystal Palace player Adam Wharton, relatively untested at the international level, presents another possible but unlikely option. The beleaguered England back line has even more concerns after John Stones suffered an ankle injury in the first half. A rusty Stones had already been partially complicit in Iceland’s goal before his injury. If Stones misses time, a back line already missing Harry Maguire is thrust into further chaos. The center back tandem of Ezri Konza and Marc Guehi did not inspire confidence with Guehi’s wobbly performance versus Iceland particularly worrisome as he had been counted on to take a large step forward in the upcoming competition.

Southgate’s decision to cut Everton’s Jarrad Branthwaite could come back to haunt the manager. Branthwaite’s omission from the squad surprised many with pundit Jamie Carragher dramatically (perhaps ridiculously….) calling out Southgate for cutting a young center back who represents “England’s present and future.” Brighton center back Lewis Dunk, still recovering from an injury, is unlikely to be anyone’s idea of a savior.

Left back also remains a headache for Southgate. Luke Shaw is not yet ready to play and the use on the left of right footed right back Kieran Trippier appeared the patchwork solution that it was on Friday. Fortunately, there should be hope that the England attack will be better in the coming weeks. Jude Bellingham has yet to join the squad following Real Madrid’s Champions League final and he should hopefully bring some energy and cohesion going forward. His return will likely displace Phil Foden to the left of England’s attack after the Premier League’s Player of the Year struggled in the Number 10 role versus Iceland. Both Foden and striker Harry Kane were uncharacteristically poor on Friday and better things should be expected from both going forward. It must be admitted, however, that Foden has never shined for England in the manner that he has for his Premier League club.

A pleasant problem for Southgate to have is where Cole Palmer now fits in the squad. The Chelsea star was one of the few top performers for England in this latest match. Does Palmer start for England in place of Bukayo Saka? Newcastle’s Aaron Gordon’s seems destined for the bench despite some brief flashes before he was replaced by Saka in the 65th minute of Friday’s loss. Saka is still managing through a muscle injury suffered late in the Premier League season.

The many decisions for England’s manager must unfortunately be made without the benefit of more on pitch evidence and experimentation before the curtain rises on Euro 24. England begins play versus Serbia in just six days.

Friday, June 7, 2024

England’s Euro 24 Roster Includes Some Surprises

England’s Euro 24 roster is final, and a surprising Premier League squad has captured the most roster spots. The four players from Crystal Palace represent the largest contingent from any one Premier League side. Eberechi Eze, Adam Wharton, Marc Guehi and goalkeeper Dean Hendersen survived the final cuts made by England Manager Gareth Southgate on Thursday. Eze and Wharton’s inclusion in the side ensured there was no room for, among others, Tottenham Hotspur’s James Maddison. A disappointed Maddison admitted his league campaign never rebounded from a prolonged mid-season injury absence.
While Tottenham Hotspur flagged in the season’s second half, the Eagles of Crystal Palace soared under new manager Oliver Glasner. Eze was central to that success and a fairly easy choice to make the England team. Wharton’s presence on the squad is more surprising. He joined Crystal Palace in January from Championship side Blackburn and soon found himself a regular in Glasner’s lineup, starting the final 15 Premier League matches for the Eagles. Wharton, who has been lauded by England Manager Gareth Southgate for his playmaking abilities, made his first senior appearance for England just this week versus Bosnia & Herzegovina. Guehi, meanwhile, could play a pivotal role for Southgate in Germany.

The England defense is problematic. Long time starting center back Harry Maguire is ruled out with a lingering calf injury. John Stones is on Southgate’s squad but is coming off a troubled season where he was both injured and seemingly out of favor with Manchester City Manager Pep Guardiola. Maguire’s teammate at Manchester United, left back Luke Shaw, has not played since February. Chelsea’s perpetually injured defenders Reece James and Ben Chilwell did not even make the preliminary 33-man England squad let alone the final 26 chosen this week.

Guehi, although having only 10 caps for England, is a three-year starting regular in the Premier League and the favorite to step in for Maguire at the heart of Southgate’s defense. Aston Villa’s Ezri Konsa, Brighton’s Lewis Dunk and Liverpool’s Joe Gomez are other, less attractive, center back options making the cut.

The axing of promising young Everton center back Jarrad Branthwaite from the final squad raised some eyebrows considering the thin England central defense. Perhaps Southgate is of the mind that Brathwaite’s contributions are exaggerated in Sean Dyche’s overly defensive Everton scheme.

Meanwhile, the strength of the England side should be in attack. A wealth of riches in forwards and attacking midfielders has seen England veterans Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish both excluded from the Euros squad after poor Premier League seasons. Surprisingly, Southgate is carrying two strikers behind captain Harry Kane. Ollie Watkins’ outstanding season at Villa saw him trail only Chelsea’s Cole Palmer in combined Premier League goals and assists. Toney’s selection is a bit more surprising with the Brentford player finding the net only four times in a Premier League season abbreviated by a gambling suspension. Palmer’s explosive debut season for Chelsea was a surprise. His inclusion on the England squad is clearly far from it. Palmer’s Chelsea teammate Conor Gallagher will also be going to Germany, bolstering a midfield with questions. Long time mainstays Jordan Hendersen and Kalvin Philips are gone.

Wharton and Manchester United’s 19-year-old midfielder Kobbie Mainoo, both playing in their first major international tournament, are in. Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, a defender and hybrid sort, is a candidate to start in the midfield alongside Arsenal’s Declan Rice. Alexander-Arnold’s Liverpool teammates Curtis Jones and Jarrell Quansah along with Burnley goalkeeper James Trafford  joined Maddison, Grealish, Maguire and Branthwaite as the unlucky seven cut from the England roster this week. England begins Euro 24 play against Serba on Sunday June 16th.

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Premier League Manager Updates

The Premier League slate of managers for next season is nearing completion after Chelsea formally announced Enzo Maresca as their new head man. Maresca piloted Leicester to the Championship title this past season and thus Leicester enters the market alongside Brighton as the only remaining clubs with open manager positions.

Of course, Manchester United’s Eric ten Hag remains in a form of limbo which seems crueler by the day. Still in place but seemingly unwanted, ten Hag awaits the determination of his fate by Sir Jim Ratcliffe and his INEOS group, the new sheriffs in town at Manchester United.

The Maresca appointment was no shocker as rumors had heavily circulated for more than a week, but it remains a bit of a head scratcher. Winning the Championship cannot be dismissed but Maresca had a strong roster to work with in Leicester’s first year post relegation from the Premier League and, despite a plethora of talent, the Foxes almost choked it away in the end. A 14-point lead in the table shrank to just a point as the Foxes just got by Ipswich to take the top spot. Declining performance in the second half of the Foxes’ season also saw increased complaints from supporters about Maresca’s possession based, often perceived by Fox fans as boring, style of play. Maresca has but one and a half seasons of senior management, having failed to last a season at Parma before his Leicester stint. He does have the Pep Guardiola stamp of approval, however, after spending time as an assistant at Manchester City where he worked with young players such as current Chelsea men Cole Palmer and Romeo Lavia. Mikel Arteta, it should be remembered, was also a Pep assistant and had less head man experience than Maresca before succeeding at Arsenal. Importantly, Maresca is reportedly fully on board with Chelsea’s management structure which limits input by the coach upon matters such as transfer policy and roster construction, a key sticking point with former manager Mauricio Pochettino. Chelsea is all in on its new manager, paying a substantial fee to Leicester to enlist his services and giving the 44-year-old a five-year contract. Maresca officially takes command on July 1.

Liverpool’s new manager took the reins this week as Arne Slot officially takes over from Jurgen Klopp in Merseyside. Slot is also a huge admirer of possession football and building from the back in the manner of Pep Guardiola sides. The Dutchman, however, is also fond of attacking with widely spaced wingers, a tactic which was more a part of Manchester City’s game in the earlier years of the Guardiola era. How Slot may integrate his approach with a Liverpool roster accustomed to more direct play under Klopp will be interesting to observe. Slot led Feyenoord to the Eredivisie title two years ago and Liverpool will certainly be hoping for a smoother transition to the Premier League than that experienced by other Dutch title winners such as ten Hag or former ill-fated Crystal Palace Manager Frank De Boer, both of whom won the Eredivisie and then found the Premier League just a bit more challenging.

Well under the radar in comparison to the Maresca and Slot signings was West Ham’s announced hire of Julen Lopetegui. The Spanish manager, who replaces David Moyes on the touchline at London Stadium, could actually have the best resume of the three new hires. Lopetegui won the Europa League and delivered three consecutive top four La Liga finishes as manager of Sevilla. His accomplishments also include a two-year unbeaten run as manager of Spain’s national team. On the downside, Lopetegui suffered an awkward departure from the Spanish national team, failed at Real Madrid, and walked away from Wolverhampton after less than a year in place last summer. Importantly, though, Lopetegui ensured Wolverhampton’s Premier League survival in the 2022/23 season. He took over a club that was at the bottom of the table in November 2022 and guided it to a 13th place finish. Differences with ownership then ended his time in the Black Country. Having already proved his effectiveness as a Premier League manager, Lopetegui returns to the league as one of several Basque managers who have experienced success in England. Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta, Aston Villa’s Unai Emery and Bournemouth’s Andoni Iraola also hail from the Basque region in northern Spain. Xabi Alonso, yet another Basque manager, won the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen this past season. Like Maresca, Lopetegui will start July 1.