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England beat Croatia – time to trust Southgate?

Gareth Southgate’s team sheet for the opening game of Euro 2020 definitely raised a few eyebrows. Starting Raheem Sterling ahead of the in-form Jack Grealish was a bold move. And the inclusion of TWO right-backs – with Kieran Trippier operating as a left-back – seemed crazy. But after his England team beat Croatia 1-0 at Wembley, Southgate silenced a lot of critics.

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To his credit, Southgate has never been one to bow to public pressure. And the volume of the calls for Grealish to start against Croatia was deafening.

But despite two impressive performances in the warm-up games, Grealish was overlooked in favour of Raheem Sterling. The same Sterling struggling to start for Manchester City, yet trusted to deliver by Southgate once again.

England were lively in attack, and with Sterling scoring the winning goal he repaid his boss’ faith massively.

Every selection decision paid off

It wasn’t just the decision to start Sterling that proved to be the right one. Southgate’s inclusion of both Declan Rice AND Kalvin Phillips has been criticised as far too conservative for a side with such attacking talent.

Yet Phillips was arguably England’s best player on the day. Deployed almost in a free role in midfield, he ran tirelessly from box to box, linking play and assisting Sterling for the eventual winner.

The inclusion of Kieran Trippier at left-back was an odd one, but one that shows Southgate’s lack of trust in his defence. A right-footer on the left must have been as defensive cover for the fairly novice Tyrone Mings. Especially in the absence of Harry Maguire.

Trippier’s defensive intervention wasn’t needed in the end. Croatia were limited to speculative efforts on goal. But even so, this was another selection decision that was justified.

Plenty of options, but Southgate trusts very few

One thing we’ve learned about Gareth Southgate is that it takes a lot to win his trust. He has tended to lean a lot on players he’s seen from an early age (Mason Mount, Reece James through the youth teams for example). He’s also loyal to those that have served him well in the past (he’s often stood by Jordan Pickford, Kyle Walker, Sterling and Trippier).

His selection for England as they beat Croatia highlights a lack of trust in some areas of the team. He’s not confident enough in his centre backs – yet. That’s why he tends to play with two more defensive-minded midfielders, instead of taking off the shackles.

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And of course, Raheem Sterling has proved time and again that he’s a trustworthy option for the Three Lions in attack.

The clamour for Jack Grealish still hasn’t gone away, but maybe now England fans might trust Southgate a little more.

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© Mike Barclay at The Football Diary 2020