England’s final two qualifiers of the campaign to reach Euro 2024 next summer confirmed one indisputable fact: there are four ‘untouchables’ in the team that Gareth Southgate absolutely cannot do without.
They are: Harry Kane, Jude Bellingham, Declan Rice and John Stones. Without any of that quartet England are not the same. They go from one of the two or three strong favourites to win next summer, along with France and Portugal, to merely contenders.
In theory, Southgate’s first-choice line-up is fairly set. If everyone is fit and playing it will likely be a 4-2-3-1 formation: Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire, Shaw; Phillips, Rice; Saka, Bellingham, Rashford; Kane.
Eight of those players are pretty much nailed-on. The doubts? Luke Shaw at left-back because of his fitness issues, which may allow Kieran Trippier or Ben Chilwell (if he can get fit) in, midfielder Kalvin Phillips, who needs to secure a move away from Manchester City in the January transfer to gain more – to gain some – playing time, and on the left Marcus Rashford, who faces strong challenges from Phil Foden, in particular, and Jack Grealish, and maybe now even Cole Palmer.
Harry Maguire is fortunate to have kept his place and needs to play far better than he did against North Macedonia. Otherwise, he will lose out to Marc Guehi or Lewis Dunk. There will be those who argue Aaron Ramsdale should be considered in goal ahead of Jordan Pickford, but that is no contest, especially if he continues to sit on the bench at Arsenal.
They put into perspective the claim England should walk it in Germany
And then there are the Golden Quartet; the Fab Four; the untouchables; the irreplaceables. England are just not the same without them. Their presence is transformative and puts into perspective the optimistic claim this is somehow England’s strongest-ever squad who should be walking it in Germany next year.
Of course every side has its core that makes the difference, but what is undeniable for England is the difference those four make to every department on the pitch – from defence, through midfield, to the trio of forward-minded players behind the main striker. It means they are even more important. It is not like a pair of strikers or a couple of midfielders. It is the spine.