With an innocuous waft of his left leg late on Wednesday evening, Trent Alexander-Arnold joined the list of England injuries that is making Gareth Southgate’s preparation for Euro 2020 far tricker than he hoped. Alexander-Arnold limped off the pitch with a suspected thigh strain while making a clearance near the end of England’s 1-0 victory over Austria at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium, and on Thursday a scan confirmed the hamstring tear which will keep him out of the tournament.
With only 10 days to go before England’s opening Group D game against Croatia, the 22-year-old joins his Liverpool teammate Joe Gomez as a key defender missing from the England squad while injuries to the captains of Liverpool, Manchester United and Aston Villa in Jordan Henderson, Harry Maguire and Jack Grealish remain ongoing concerns as the days tick by.
So who will Southgate choose to replace Alexander-Arnold? There are five outfield players on England’s stand-by list and the manager has confirmed one of those five will be promoted to the squad, to be chosen on Monday after their final warm-up against Romania on Sunday. Given Alexander-Arnold is a defender, the Aston Villa striker Ollie Watkins is unlikely to get the call, especially after Bukayo Saka’s impressive performance against Austria underlined the squad’s attacking depth.
The two defenders in contention are Ben Godfrey and Ben White, who share plenty of parallels beyond just their names. Both players are 23 years old, both specialise at centre-back but have showed their versatility this season for Everton and Brighton respectively, and both made their senior England debuts against Austria as second-half substitutes.
Having come up through the England youth ranks, something Southgate values highly as a former England U21 manager, Godfrey may have the edge over White should a defender be chosen to replace Alexander-Arnold. But it seems unlikely: England are still well-stocked in defensive areas with five full-backs and four centre-backs, and it was notable that Southgate described their opportunities in this squad as a chance “to gain experience”.
Perhaps only if Maguire’s outlook worsened would Southgate consider calling up a defender. It is worth noting only new injuries can be replaced up to the day of each nation’s first game; players like Henderson and Maguire selected with existing knocks cannot now be directly swapped with a replacement, so ensuring adequate cover will be a factor.
The only other outfield players on stand-by are two very different midfielders: Jesse Lingard and James Ward-Prowse. Lingard is the more attacking option, and one of the few players in the squad who could ably deputise for Mason Mount in that attacking No8 role with licence to run beyond Harry Kane. Those type of lung-busting runs from deep were notably lacking against Austria, highlighting Mount’s importance to the way England play; Lingard started the game wide on the right but would be a useful second option in a central role.
Ward-Prowse is more of a specialised central midfield player with the added bonus of carrying excellent set-piece delivery. The centre of the pitch is somewhere this England squad lacks depth, something which will be further exposed if Henderson fails to fully recover from the groin issue which kept him out of the Premier League’s final months. Henderson was supposed to feature against Austria but felt a tweak on Wednesday morning and wasn’t risked, so Ward-Prowse could add important cover to the already selected midfielders Mount, Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips (himself nursing a shoulder injury) and the teenage Jude Bellingham.
It is worth noting that while Bellingham, at 17, is by the far the youngest of the midfield options, they are all 25 or younger and so Ward-Prowse would add experience too, despite having only seven international caps so far. The 26-year-old captains Southampton and was also selected to captain England Under-21s by Southgate in the 2017 European U21s Championship, leading the Young Lions to the semi-finals.
This last point is an important one. Southgate places high value on his personal relationships. He regards loyalty and trust just as significantly as talent and form, and prioritises finding a blend of characters to build each squad. The manager knows Ward-Prowse well from his time with England U21s, and knows Lingard from the 2018 World Cup in which the midfielder was an integral component of England’s run to the last four. These personal connections are another reason why they are the frontrunners for a place in Southgate’s squad given Alexander-Arnold’s withdrawal.
“Jesse’s response to the situation has been immense,” Southgate said after the game, referring to Lingard’s reaction to missing out on the initial squad for Euro 2020. “As has Prowsey and Ollie [Watkins]. It’s a really difficult situation for those lads to miss out as they have, but they’ve shown commitment.”
Between the pair of midfielders, ultimately it may come down to a case of squad balance. With Alexander-Arnold goes high-quality set-piece delivery and this is Ward-Prowse’s speciality; he memorably scored goal of the 2014 Toulon Tournament for Southgate’s England U21s via a direct free-kick. This talent coupled with his natural ability to deputise for the still-injured Henderson makes Ward-Prowse a more logical fit in the group than Lingard, and this may just tip the balance in his favour.
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