As 33 turn to 26, the official England squad for EURO 2020 has finally been confirmed. But the ultimate victors are far from decided – while these players may have cleared the first hurdle, it’s the starting XI who will dictate goals, scorelines, heartbreak and happiness for a nation in waiting. Gareth Southgate’s graft is only just getting started.

The key decisions to be made, as with any international manager, lie in selecting a fine-tuned team that exploits the country’s budding young talent yet doesn’t lose sight of experience and proven consistency on the grandest of stages – which is easier said than done.

Southgate’s squad seems to have prioritised promising potential over illustrious experience.  Only three of England’s entire squad of 26 are aged over 28; at the 2010 World Cup over half of the England squad had reached this landmark, most bringing with them a wealth of experience to accompany it. In 2018, Southgate’s requisite for selecting his squad was famously ‘form and fitness’ – there’s no sign this has changed three years on.

But how far is the former national under-21 manager willing to go? In midfield, the backbone of Southgate’s possession-led sides, Phil Foden, 21, and Mason Mount, 22, have surely earned their place to form the crux of the attack. Jadon Sancho, also 21, will be fighting to join them upfront. While the fresh-faced force will be bolstered by captain Harry Kane – who demonstrates that experience doesn’t always necessitate age – the selection is a clear statement from Southgate that he’s unafraid of inexperience in the face of profound talent.

This will no doubt be scrutinised by the media and fans, but the reality is many of England’s brightest, bedazzling players at this moment in time are young. They may lack experience on an international stage but they’ve earned their right to be given a chance through sheer, exquisite talent. 

Despite England’s impressive run to the semi-final at the 2018 World Cup, 75% of their goals – nine of 12 – came from set-pieces. With fewer shots on target per game than half of the teams at the tournament, their overachievements were not, it seems, due to a ruthlessness in attack. Foden and Mount’s quick-footed, high-tempo attacks would however inject life into a team which many claim lacks creativity in midfield.

But Southgate must still strike a balance. A dynamic, ferocious attack of youngsters must at least be supervised by a reliable and stable defence. If John Stones can strike up a partnership with Harry Maguire even a fraction as successful as that which he manufactured with Rúben Dias in a Premier League winning backline, then a barricade can be built to enable more flamboyant flair going forward.

Stones, 26, and Maguire, 28, can hardly be considered veterans of the game, but both have experience in a major tournament – and a semi-final at that. While it may be tempting to look beyond a group which comprises of an aging Croatia side, Czech Republic and Scotland, if England make it through then the pressure will instantly explode and players might begin to crack. Southgate can’t fall into the trap of forging a team for Group D and failing to look beyond this.

Neither should he forget to look behind him to previous tournaments. For all the focus on the next generation of players in this squad, it’s easy to forget that the World Cup squad three years ago was considered the next generation of players. They were heralded as tomorrow’s winners, their glory days stretching far beyond the pitches of Russia – perhaps that’s why they did so well. They flipped laughably low expectations on their heels, exuded character and grit, and grinded their way to help a disheartened nation re-find its football feet.

Raheem Sterling may be tipped to lose out to his silkier, sharper successors, while Dele Ali, still only 25, failed to get a call back to the squad altogether. But these players weren’t expected to storm their way to the semi-finals three years ago, and they did. This has to count for something.

Have they earned a right to be considered in the starting XI through their tenacious performance in Russia, and the invaluable experience they will have gained? For all the applause of this youthful England side’s overachievement, they were in fact favourites for the fatal game against Croatia and were leading until 68 minutes. More experience on the international stage may have salvaged the men in white, which Southgate must remember in his bid for success this time round. Talent isn’t the only factor to consider.

With both the rising starlets and established players of the 2018 World Cup, England’s attacking force is bursting with class. But to what extent is Southgate willing dictate the formation around these individuals? Will he allow for the wealth of talent the squad boasts upfront by switching from a 4-4-2 set-up? Should he? In the last great venture, he strayed from this classic formation, and the 50-year-old was praised for his flexibility to mould the team around the players, rather than moulding the players around the team.

But perhaps even bigger risks need to be taken if England are to go all the way. Stuart Pearce, who competed in two major tournaments for England, including the last time they played on home soil at Euro ’96, seems to think so.

Speaking exclusively to UCFB, he said: “You’ve got to have that player that comes from nowhere, potentially, that you didn’t think was going to be a key star to the team. We had [Paul] Gascoigne and maybe Des Walker in 1990, and Gascoigne in a different way in 1996.”

Maybe Jude Bellingham, the 17-year-old star from Borussia Dortmund, will be the source of unexpected flair and enchantment for the nation in weeks to come. Maybe the fact I’m writing this means he’s far too predictable a candidate. That both Foden and Mount are well beyond the point of no expectations now is quite astonishing.

With so many hotly contested debates and decisions, one thing for sure is England’s delicious mix of strength, creativity, speed, stability and accuracy on the pitch. Whether that’s enough, and the right balance of each ingredient is added to the mix, time will tell. We’ll have to trust in Southgate for now.