Alan Smith Exclusive - Euro 2024

Alan Smith Exclusive - Euro 2024

On England At Euro 2024

England didn’t get off to the best of departures, losing at home to Iceland. Did that performance give you any cause for concern ahead of the EURO’s getting under way or was the defeat to Iceland what this group needed to sharpen the minds ahead of the opener against Serbia.

I think England fans have every right to be concerned by the nature of the performance. Iceland frequently had a lot of joy on the counterattack, so that would have concerned Gareth Southgate. Harry Kane said the result can act as a wake-up call, which it can. When you've been on a winning streak, and you think you've cracked it going into a tournament so often it can smack you in the face. You would hope that the result and the performance will concentrate minds and we can get back to the levels that we're capable of.

Southgate has been bold with his squad selection. What do you think of the balance of the squad, and do you have any concerns about any departments of the team? Are we missing anything?

Southgate has been bold with certain decisions. Obviously, I think Jack Grealish is the standout one, and this is coming from a manager that's been accused down the years of perhaps showing a little bit too much loyalty to certain individuals.

He's picked a squad that he feels is the right one. You can look at the defence and maybe worry a bit. What back four will he be able to play? Who's going to partner John Stones? Hopefully Stones will be fit after that knock. Marc Guéhi looks like he will get the nod. He played them together against Iceland and is obviously trying to establish a relationship there.

To not have Maguire is a big blow because he has a good relationship with Stones; that is a pairing with experience and the understanding between the two was excellent.

At left-back, will Luke Shaw be fit? I think he will play Kieran Trippier if there are any doubts about Shaw. Trippier is such a good defender one-v-one and so experienced at this level. Not having a natural left footer does imbalance you a little bit when it's time for him to go forward.

We've got so many great players going forward, but the challenge is whether or not we can get the balance right and pick a defence that's going to do the business.

Some big names were axed from the initial group. Grealish’s omission is probably the most striking. Were you surprised to see him, or any other players dropped?

I was surprised by the Grealish decision. He came on and set up that goal for Alexander-Arnold with a lovely pass against Bosnia. I don’t think that Southgate and Grealish have ever been natural bedfellows. It took Southgate a while to come round to picking Grealish in the squad and giving him a chance. That can happen sometimes with managers.

I always remember Graham Taylor and Gary Lineker, there was always a little bit of friction there. Obviously Grealish hasn't had the best of seasons. He's not been in the City team week in, week out in the way that he was in the treble season. He's had injuries, but even so, he's got that little bit of something.

Maybe Anthony Gordon’s form has seen off Grealish, Eze as well. I was surprised that Grealish hasn't been picked.

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A door has opened for Eze. What kind of role can you see him playing at the tournament?

I can see Eze being used as an impact substitute.  When he played the other night, he didn't seem phased. Sometimes certain players can put on the shirt and get a little bit intimidated; they play within themselves, but he expressed himself. That would have been great news for Southgate to see somebody like Eze take to the international stage confidently.

I think he can be a joker in the pack. I’m not sure Gareth will know exactly how he's going to use him, but as a substitute, he might be quite a useful one to have. 

There are a few question marks about who Gareth will play on the left. We saw Gordon start there against Iceland, with Foden in the ten role. Who do you think will start there when the tournament kicks-off?

My money would be on Foden playing off the left. He's done it so often for club and country.

What kind of role do you expect Cole Palmer to play?

If we're talking about the right side of the attack, then Saka is ahead of Cole Palmer in terms of that experience and his history in an England shirt. I think Saka will start there, but Cole Palmer is a great option. The list of options for the flanks is better than any other team at this tournament in my opinion. We have an abundance of fantastic attacking players that can play in those wide areas.

Many people were surprised that Southgate took three strikers. As a former forward, can you understand that decision? What kind of roles do you think Toney and Watkins will have at the tournament?

The 26-man squad has enabled him to pick both. And again, it's a sign, I think, that Southgate is trying to be really positive and trying to be bold about things by giving himself lots of options.

I would probably see Toney as having a bigger effect impact-wise from the bench than Watkins would, just with that physical presence. Toney offers a different game to Watkins. It’s going to be interesting to see who he turns to when the moment comes.If Kane's fit and he's okay, neither will get a look in in terms of starting games. It’s interesting though because Watkins has had more exposure to the international scene than Toney, but I just feel there's something about Toney's game that can create more of an impact at international level.

Who do you think is England’s most important player?

Harry Kane is our most important player because we haven't got anybody on his level, he's one of the best players in the world. I think he's the best centre forward in the world.

He's the captain. So much goes through him as he drops off and knits the play.Without him, I think, although we've got good players, I don’t think the team would feel quite the same, quite as confident. He's key man in this team.

What would be your message to this group of England players?

Seize the day. These occasions, even as a youngster, you think that they could be the first of several tournaments, but sometimes it doesn't work out that way. You can be injured. You can lose your form. Your career can go backwards. Just go out there and try and enjoy it.

I think the boys do enjoy it more so now than they ever did previously. That shirt was heavy. Maybe in my day it was a lot heavier than it is now. I don't think they feel that way.Just to go out there and be positive. All England fans are looking for us to take the game to the opposition, to get on the ball and to play. Hopefully the lads will be able to do that.

On Group C 

It looks like a winnable group on paper. Are there any teams or players that worry you looking at Slovenia, Serbia and Denmark?

I think you're looking at their strikers as much as anything. When you go through the teams, you wouldn't say they're peppered with threats. All of them play with quite a physical presence up there, and that could cause England’s central defence problems. Dealing with a physical presence and teams that play high and direct, perhaps that’s our Achilles heel in this tournament.

I think opposing coaches will say of Stones and Guéhi, “that’s a new partnership, lets test them out.” Aleksandar Mitrović, Benjamin Šeško and Rasmus Højlund, those boys are going to be threats in the group games.

What are your expectations with England in this group?

I'm not saying that England are going to win it easily, but you'd hope that we could.We’ll need to find a shape – a bit of rhythm – which is always the key in tournaments.

Find that rhythm as early as you can. Sometimes it can be a bit stuttery in the first couple of games, the first game particularly, but you would hope we can get a few goals and the lads can just feel their way into the tournament until the business end with the knockout stages.

You can't take any team for granted, but you would hope that we can navigate that group and look forward with a bit of confidence.

What does success at EURO 2024 look like for Gareth Southgate? What should we be looking to achieve in Germany?

Getting to the final is the minimum objective. I know that sounds like a high bar, but these days I think that's got to be it. I'm not saying that we've got to win it. It would be a big disappointment if we didn't. If you get to the final and play well, sometimes you don’t have that little bit of luck, and you think fair enough.

Obviously, England fans will be very disappointed if we lost a final. I was disappointed with what happened against Italy in the last Euro final. I think England have got to get to the final with this group of players. We’re good enough to do that.

On Euro 2024

Who are the teams that England would probably want to avoid playing?

France is the obvious one, that is a team that you would want to avoid. We owe them one from Qatar. With the players that they've got; they've got that winning mentality within them. They know they can go all the way. They're not going to tighten up.

Germany's an interesting one on home turf. They are better now than they have been in recent years. With their history and that ability to turn it on for four weeks, it would be foolish to write them off. That being said, I don't see them as being genuine contenders to win it.

Spain, you could say they’re a little bit similar to Germany. They are not quite at the level that they have been in the past.

I think most countries will be looking at England and saying, “oh yeah, I think this is the side we've got to beat.”

Who would be your tip for the tournament top scorer?

Kane's always in the running for the golden boot, no matter how far England get. He takes the penalties as well. If he wins the golden boot, it's going to be good news, I imagine, for England.

Mbappé, he is always in amongst it. Olivier Giroud is one of those that, even at his ripe old age, still scores goals. He’s an amazing player with really great experience.

Sometimes somebody pops up, don't they? An unknown player or someone unexpected.

Morata for Spain is a natural goal scorer, but he'd need his team to have a good tournament (to be in contention for the golden boot), so we'll see.

On The Premier League

One player that the Gunners are looking at is Slovenia’s Benjamin Sesko. We’ll get to see him at the EURO’s, apparently a few teams like the look of him. Is a striker an area that you think Arsenal should be looking at and should they move quickly for Sesko in case he catches the eye of more clubs at the tournament?

We haven't seen much transfer activity so far and that's because of the Euros. All the players understandably want to concentrate on the tournament, they don't want to be talking to their agents and clubs about signing until they've got this tournament out of the way.

It's not an ideal situation for the clubs, and Arsenal, under Edu and Arteta, have been quite decisive. They've got the business done early. They certainly haven't been waiting until the last day or week.

Benjamin Šeško has been constantly linked. He's the right age at twenty-one. He's got his whole career ahead of him. That kind of player, a big, imposing striker, would be a nice addition to the lads we've got at the moment. You need to have options and a bit of contrast in your squad.

Ivan Toney has been linked constantly, Alexander Isak as well from Newcastle. Behind the scenes, lots would have been going on in the months leading up to this. I've got a lot of confidence in Edu and his team. They've been shown to be very efficient in their business.

Once the tournament's over or certain teams have been knocked out, you might see things happen quickly.

Arsenal are apparently looking to add a midfield player and the latest cab on the rank is Aston Villa’s Douglas Luiz, who the Gunners have been linked with before. What are your thoughts on the player and what kind of an impact would his signing have on Declan Rice’s role at the club?

I don't think Arsenal want to change Rice's game, he did so well playing on the left side of the centre and getting into the box in the second half of the season. I think Arsenal will be looking for someone to come in and play deep, the role that Thomas Partey was performing towards the end of the season. If Partey were to leave the football club, that creates an opening.

I like Douglas Luiz. I think his games come on an awful lot under Unai Emery. He's shown that he can take on those strict orders of Emery. He's got to do as he says, and that bodes well for the player's character and his willingness to be disciplined out on the pitch.

The centre midfield is an area I think Arsenal will be looking at because Partey might be leaving the club.

Apparently, Mikel Arteta is close to signing a new contract with Arsenal. Is that the most important signing the club makes this summer?

It’s very important for Arsenal and Arteta to agree fresh terms. You want that continuity now because things are obviously on the uphill curve. He's doing brilliantly and he’s still learning as a manager.

It's easy to forget that he's relatively young as a boss of a big club like Arsenal.He's cleared out those he didn't want, he's brought those in that he does, and now he wants to build. He certainly wants to make it a bigger, stronger squad which we will need for that title challenge and the Champions League next season.

Enzo Maresca was announced as Chelsea’s new manager at the beginning of the month. What will the ex-Leicester man bring in terms of his style of play and do you think he has the right personality and temperament to collaborate with Chelsea’s American ownership?

Chelsea’s appointment of Enzo Maresca is a gamble, no question about it. It's a gamble as well as he did at Leicester. He completely changed their way of playing to a possession-based game, building from the back and, at times, the Leicester fans were getting frustrated with that. He stuck to his guns, and it paid off in the end.

Maresca is definitely inexperienced. Before Leicester, he had a spell at Parma that ended pretty quickly, and he had a year working with Manchester City’s kids.

To go into Chelsea and deal with the owners he will need to be strong. The other challenge is managing all of the players they have… it will be a bit of a baptism of fire for him. The step up from the Championship to the Premier League is a pretty big one.

I'm still dumbfounded by Pochettino and the decision to move on from him. I’m surprised he's not still there. Maybe it was a half and half decision. Perhaps he didn't fancy it, knowing what he knew behind the scenes.

Chelsea have gone for Maresca, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how he gets on and what happens at Stamford Bridge next season. It will be fascinating to see how he deals with the challenges that come with managing in that environment.

Will he do anything different from what Pochettino did? We're all looking on with interest on that one to see how it pans out.


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