LUKE SHAW has played just 60 minutes of football for England during Gareth Southgate’s four-and-a-half year reign.
John Stones has featured in just one of his country’s last 15 matches since suffering a personal meltdown during the Nations League semi-final defeat by Holland in 2019.
Yet the resurgence of both players, re-established as two of the best defenders in the Premier League, is a major boost to Southgate as he emerges from hibernation to name his first squad of the year on Thursday.
It’s a funny old business being an international manager in the winter, especially during lockdown.
Southgate is effectively furloughed between mid-November and late March, pottering around his house in North Yorkshire, walking the dogs, sorting out the recycling because it’s only two days until bin day.
But between now and the end of next year he faces two major international tournaments, in charge of a team which sits fourth in Fifa’s world rankings, despite barely having utilised some of England’s brightest talents.
The Euros are just 87 days away but first there are three qualifiers for next year’s Qatar World Cup, against San Marino, Albania and Poland.
During these four-and-a-half months between fixtures, England’s manager waits nervously, hoping his players stay fit and play well, especially given the logjam of fixtures.
But Southgate has been fortunate, with only Jordan Henderson suffering a long-term injury since November.
Meanwhile Stones, 26, has overcome a lengthy crisis to consistently touch world-class standards, forming an outstanding partnership with Ruben Dias, whose arrival might easily have spelled the end of his Manchester City career.
Stones has rediscovered that ‘Barnsley Beckenbauer’ strut, striding out of defence, and has even scored more goals than Marcus Rashford since the turn of the year.
Shaw, 25, has enjoyed a similar renaissance, convincingly seeing off the challenge of Brazilian Alex Telles as Manchester United’s left-back.
He has been man of the match against City and West Ham on the last two Sundays and, despite having never been fully trusted by Southgate before, could now usurp Ben Chilwell as England’s first-choice this summer.
The renaissance of Shaw and, in particular, of Stones, is not just excellent news for England’s defensive capabilities but for their offensive options too.
With such a wealth of attacking talent, England have not been as much fun to watch as they ought to have been.
The feeling in the Three Lions camp is Southgate has become wedded to a three-man central defence because of the old adage ‘if you ain’t got two good ones, pick three’.
The midfield duo of Declan Rice and Henderson is already pencilled in for the summer’s biggest fixtures.
So play five defenders and, with Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling nailed on to start, there would only be one place free in England’s line-up.
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This means Southgate could start just one of Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Mason Mount, without even mentioning Rashford, Jadon Sancho or the exciting Leicester duo of James Maddison and Harvey Barnes.
Southgate, rightly, loves Mount. The public will demand Grealish and if England are good enough to overlook Foden, then they really haven’t shown it.
Tyrone Mings, Conor Coady and Kyle Walker have put in decent shifts in a back three.
But Stones and Maguire is now a central defensive pairing Southgate should feel comfortable fielding in a flat back four, even against the most elite opposition.
This frees up another spot for an attacking player.
And that gives us a possible starting XI of Pickford, Trippier, Stones, Maguire, Shaw, Rice, Henderson, Mount, Foden (or Grealish), Sterling and Kane.
That looks a well-balanced team, boasting experience and youth, attacking creativity without a legs-open defence.
If England top a Euros group including Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic, they would face the runners-up from a proper Group of Death which features France, Germany and Portugal, in Dublin in the last-16.
Given that England have never beaten a team as good as those three in a knockout tie at any tournament away from Wembley, this would be a stiff ask.
England were largely turgid during an eight-match autumn campaign, most memorable for indiscipline.
Foden and Mason Greenwood were sent home from Iceland in disgrace while Maguire was arrested.
Maguire, Walker and Reece James were all sent off and Sancho, Chilwell and Tammy Abraham guilty of silly lockdown breaches.
England failed to score in two Nations League ties with Denmark and were too often stifled by caution, with Southgate frequently claiming they had been better than they actually were.
With England’s Euros group matches to be played in front of crowds at Wembley, there will be added demand for Southgate to toss away the shackles.
After a miserable year, this promises to be another English footballing summer of love to rival — perhaps even better — Russia in 2018.
Southgate just needs to believe it. Stones and Shaw should help him.
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