England vs Croatia: Who should start? Sky Sports writers pick their XIs for Wembley opener

Sky Sports writers put forward their XI for England vs Croatia, the XI they believe Southgate will select, and their explanations; pick your XI in the team selector at the bottom of the page

Gareth Southgate has several selection headaches ahead of England's opening Euro 2020 clash with Croatia
Image: Gareth Southgate has several selection headaches ahead of England's opening Euro 2020 clash with Croatia

Four at the back or five at the back? Will Jack Grealish get the nod? Should Gareth Southgate play two holding midfielders?

England's Euro 2020 campaign gets under way at Wembley on Sunday against Croatia, and after months of fierce debate, Southgate will pick the side he thinks can win what should be the toughest game of the group stage.

Here, we asked our Sky Sports writers to put forward their XI, the XI they believe Southgate will select, and their explanations.

You can pick your XI in the team selector at the bottom of the page...

Peter Smith: Midfield battle could be key

Mason Mount in action for England
Image: Mason Mount in action for England

Predicting Gareth Southgate's England XI against Croatia is a tricky task right now, with question marks over how he'll approach the game in terms of formation and attitude. If he errs on the side of caution and plays not to lose against the toughest team in the group then a back three could return for the first time in 2021, with John Stones partnering two of Tyrone Mings, Ben White, Conor Coady and Kyle Walker.

But I suspect he will prioritise the midfield battle against the technical Croatians, go with a back four and instead have Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips shutting down the likes of Luka Modric, along with Mason Mount linking midfield and attack. The Chelsea man will have to run beyond Harry Kane when he drops deep, but the England captain will surely have Jack Grealish creating for him.

Southgate has said he doesn't see Mount, Grealish and Phil Foden all playing together - why not?! - so he'll lean towards either Raheem Sterling or Marcus Rashford, who can provide pace and drive coming in off the flanks. On current form, the Man Utd man may just get the nod.

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The England team I think Southgate will play:

(4-3-3): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Mings, Shaw; Phillips, Rice, Mount; Rashford, Kane, Grealish.

The England team I would play:

(4-3-3): Pickford; James, Stones, Mings, Chilwell; Rice, Bellingham, Mount; Foden, Kane, Grealish.

Ron Walker: Be brave with attacking talent

Jack Grealish lays down behind the England wall against Romania
Image: Jack Grealish was a draft excluder at this free-kick but was largely used as No 10 by Gareth Southgate

Ben White was impressive in his first England start against Romania on Sunday, but even though his inclusion is as much down to Tyrone Mings' performances in the two warm-up games, the latter's concentration issues are no surprise to Gareth Southgate and he'll probably keep his place to face Croatia.

I can't look beyond a back three as it would be a major shock to see Harry Maguire fit to start on Sunday and Southgate would be brave, if not foolish, to throw him in and potentially risk his fitness further down the line. John Stones and Mings will quite possibly be joined by Kyle Walker, who can counter the pace of Croatia's Ante Rebic and has served him at centre-back before.

Southgate seems to like Jude Bellingham, who impresses every time he plays and offers the dynamism you need in midfield in a 3-4-3. The manager does still have his favourites, so I can't imagine Raheem Sterling missing out despite his form in 2021.

I would like to see England be a bit braver and use the attacking talent at their disposal, especially Jack Grealish and Phil Foden, who have taken to the international scene like ducks to the Serpentine, although the comments Southgate made about the former's defensive work shine a light on why he is unlikely to be given a starting berth.

Croatia have a good team on paper but their form over the last 18 months has been poor, so England should capitalise with the strength in their frontline. The movement and technical ability of Foden, Grealish and Mason Mount behind Harry Kane, whose own link-up play is world class, could provide some real problems.

The England team I think Southgate will play:

(3-4-3): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Mings; James, Bellingham, Rice, Chilwell; Sterling, Kane, Mount.

The England team I would play:

(4-2-3-1): Pickford; Walker, Stones, White, Shaw; Bellingham, Rice; Foden, Mount, Grealish; Kane.

Ben Grounds: The kids are more than ready

Jude Bellingham has earned three senior England caps to date
Image: Jude Bellingham has made an impression

Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden have shown they are more than capable and ready to be part of Gareth Southgate's starting XI at this summer's tournament but, if there is one word to sum up his time in charge, it is pragmatic.

Ten defenders were named as part of the initial 26-man squad, and that number was replenished by Trent Alexander-Arnold being replaced by Ben White, who is capable of filling a number of roles. It served as a window into Southgate's thinking and reservations surrounding the fitness of both Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson.

But with England boasting the youngest average age at the Championships, this feels the perfect opportunity to show faith in youth. While oddsmakers have them as joint-favourites, the World Cup next year is the true acid test of this squad's credentials.

There must be a balance to the team. White has impressed more than Tyrone Mings in the warm-up games, but the Aston Villa's superior aerial presence will be required alongside John Stones.

Pace is needed to stretch defences, so Marcus Rashford gets the nod, but giving Bellingham and Foden the keys to unlock Croatia in Sunday's opener would certainly excite supporters.

The England team I think Southgate will play:

(3-4-3): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Mings; Trippier, Rice, Mount, Chilwell; Grealish, Sterling, Kane.

The England team I would play:

(4-2-3-1): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Mings, Shaw; Rice, Bellingham; Rashford, Mount, Foden; Kane.

Gerard Brand: England must negate their own weaknesses

PA IMAGE 0:33
Former England winger Stewart Downing thinks Gareth Southgate must find a way to start Jack Grealish at Euro 2020

It's not the end of the world if England don't win their opener - seven of the last eight major tournament winners have drawn or lost a group game - but their best chance of starting the tournament on a positive note is to negate their own weaknesses.

Nobody wants to hear this, and sorry to break it to you, but defensive teams win major tournaments.

Fans will want toe-to-toe football - "throw the generational talent out there and let them play!" will be the cry - but defence is by far England's most worrying area. For that reason, a back five is a must, and despite being a natural leader, Tyrone Mings needs protection. That's not to say Southgate won't switch to a four for the remaining group games, or if and when Harry Maguire returns.

We also have short memories when it comes to these tournaments. The international game can be slow and stodgy, and the dead ball will be key. After all, nine of England's 12 goals in Russia came from set-pieces, which makes James Ward-Prowse's absence all the more puzzling.

I would field both Jack Grealish and Kieran Trippier as a Batman and Robin act; the former can win free-kicks, the latter can deliver them. But the feeling is Southgate made up his mind on Grealish's role many weeks ago, and either Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho or Marcus Rashford will get the nod. Phil Foden, of course, can't be so easily ignored.

The England team I think Southgate will play:

(3-4-3): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Mings; James, Rice, Mount, Shaw; Rashford, Kane, Foden.

The England team I would play:

(3-4-3): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Mings; Trippier, Rice, Mount, Shaw; Grealish, Kane, Foden.

Oliver Yew: Time to be bold, Gareth!

Jack Grealish
Image: Jack Grealish is at the heart of England's selection dilemma

Two wins and two clean sheets from England's two warm-up games against Austria and Romania. You'd be forgiven for thinking England have had decent preparation ahead of Euro 2020, but there are still more questions than answers ahead of their tournament opener against Croatia.

Assuming Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson won't be fit for the opener, the biggest question facing Southgate is formation. Will he stick with four at the back or will he revert to a three-man defence? They may have two clean sheets in their last two games, but the sight of some awkward defending will have made uneasy watching for Southgate, who I think will plump for three at the back with Kyle Walker joining John Stones and Tyrone Mings, and Reece James and Ben Chilwell filling the wing-back roles they are used to at Chelsea.

That's not the way I'd go, however, as the bold option would be to stick with a back four, playing Walker at right-back, Stones and Mings in the middle with Luke Shaw joining them. Ben White impressed against Romania and could be pushing for a start, but his lack of experience could count against him with Mings, despite some poor showings in the warm-up games, getting the nod.

Going with a back four would enable Southgate to get more of the brilliant attacking talent he has at his disposal into the team, specifically Phil Foden, Mason Mount and Jack Grealish. Southgate has warned he must strike a balance, but it's time for England to be bold and with Foden, Grealish and Mount - not to mention Jude Bellingham, who has also shown he's a special talent - pulling the strings behind Harry Kane, England would be a side to be feared this summer.

The England XI I think Southgate will play:

(3-4-3): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Mings; James, Rice, Phillips, Chilwell; Mount, Kane, Rashford.

The England XI I would play:

(4-2-3-1): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Mings, Shaw; Rice, Bellingham; Grealish, Mount, Foden; Kane.

Richard Morgan: Grealish over Foden in battle of the playmakers

Ben White (PA)
Image: Ben White gets the nod in defence for two of the Sky Sports writers

The word coming out of the England camp is Gareth Southgate will revert back to a three-man defence to kick off England's Euro 2020 campaign against Croatia.

The thinking being that will offer his side greater defensive protection against the 2018 World Cup finalists, with just one of those centre-back roles seemingly up for debate following the untimely ankle injury that threatens to rule Harry Maguire out of the entire group stage.

I have plumped for the recently called-up Brighton central defender Ben White to fill the role, but the England manager will most probably opt for the slightly more experienced Conor Coady.

The identity of the wing-backs will also be revealing such are Southgate's plethora of choices there, with the Three Lions boss likely to choose La Liga-winning right-back Kieran Trippier ahead of my pick, Chelsea's Champions League-winner Reece James.

And that just leaves the equally thorny issue of who operates either side of captain Harry Kane in the three-man forward line? Well, Mason Mount's selection is a certainty given his outstanding form for both club and country last season, meaning a straight fight out between Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho for the last remaining slot.

No easy call that, but the Aston Villa playmaker gets my nod as I just cannot leave him out, but do not be surprised to see the Man City star in Southgate's starting XI at Wembley this weekend.

The England team I think Southgate will play:

(3-4-3): Pickford; Coady, Stones, Walker; Chilwell, Rice, Phillips, Trippier; Rashford, Kane, Mount

The England team I would play:

(3-4-3): Pickford; White, Stones, Walker; Chilwell, Rice, Phillips, James; Grealish, Kane, Mount

Nick Wright: Pragmatism makes sense

Will Gareth Southgate pair Kalvin Phillips with Declan Rice?
Image: Will Gareth Southgate pair Kalvin Phillips with Declan Rice?

I think Gareth Southgate would prefer to play with four at the back ideally but the inclusion of 10 defenders in his squad gives him flexibility and hints pretty strongly at pragmatism.

Given Harry Maguire's unavailability and Croatia's considerable attacking threat, I therefore think he will revert to a back three on Sunday and I think that is probably the prudent option.

Personally, I would opt for Conor Coady as the third centre-back with John Stones and Kyle Walker. The Wolves man is familiar with the system and the same cannot be said of the out-of-from Tyrone Mings, whose left footedness is useful but not enough for me.

I suspect Southgate will partner Kalvin Phillips with Declan Rice in midfield to provide extra solidity and control, with Mason Mount and Marcus Rashford playing in support of Harry Kane, but I would love to see him make room for Phil Foden.

Jack Grealish is of course another tempting option, as is Jude Bellingham, but a pacey outlet like Rashford is a must and the Aston Villa man can always make an impact from the bench.

I'd opt for Ben Chilwell over Luke Shaw at left wing-back following his outstanding finish to the season with Chelsea, while Kieran Trippier's set-piece ability gives him a slight edge on Reece James on the other side.

The England XI I think Southgate will play:

(3-4-3): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Mings; Trippier, Rice, Phillips, Chilwell; Mount, Rashford, Kane.

The England XI I would play:

(3-4-3): Pickford; Walker, Coady, Stones; Trippier, Rice, Mount, Chilwell; Foden, Rashford, Kane.

Charlotte Marsh: Why not Grealish AND Foden?

Phil Foden for England
Image: Phil Foden has also staked a strong claim for inclusion

England head into Euro 2020 with an incredible array of attacking talent, but the question will be how to harness the best of it to lead England to glory.

Jack Grealish has had an impressive start to life as a senior England international and after set-pieces were key to success at the 2018 World Cup, his ability to draw a foul will be priceless. He may also bring the element of surprise - some defenders will be caught out by his speed and ability.

Phil Foden has been nothing short of remarkable for Man City this season - you could list stats and accomplishments for days - and like Grealish, has done well at senior international level.

So why not play the two together? It means Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling - the latter two Southgate may turn to for experience - would miss out, but what options to have on the bench. No opposing team will want to see those numbers come up during a tight draw.

Jude Bellingham and Mason Mount also have to be included. I think some England fans will be surprised just how talented 17-year-old Bellingham is, if they don't already, while Champions League winner Mount can be a game-changer.

At the back, Conor Coady gets the nod at centre-back for me. With Harry Maguire unlikely to play some of the games, England need a player who can match him for solidity and leadership in defence, and Coady meets those criteria.

The England team I think Southgate will play:

(3-4-3): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Mings; Trippier, Rice, Mount, Chilwell; Grealish, Kane, Rashford

The England team I would play:

(4-3-3): Pickford; James, Stones, Coady, Shaw; Rice, Bellingham, Mount; Grealish, Kane, Foden

Podcast: Foden and Grealish on the bench?! The big England XI debate

Jasper Taylor is joined by Rob Dorsett, Nick Wright and Gerard Brand for a definitive debate on the biggest England talking point ahead of their Euro 2020 opener against Croatia on Sunday: who will start at Wembley?

In part one, Rob brings us all the latest insight from St George's Park, while the panel run through the formation and defence

In part two (22:31), it's all about the midfield and forward line. Is there a chance Rashford and Sterling start over Foden and Grealish? And should England look to play two defensive midfielders in the knockout stages?

And in part three (42:27), the SkySports.com readers' XI is revealed, and both Nick and Gerard pick their surprise impact player from England's squad.

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