The Three Lions enter Euro 2016 as something different from England sides of the past: young. And not just young by the standards of recent years, this team is young compared to every English squad of the last half century. Not since 1958 has an English side headed to a major tournament with such an abundance of youth.
Of the 23 members of the Euro roster, 15 are 26 or younger, 65% of the roster. Subtracting the goalkeepers, all three of whom are 28 or older, the number jumps to 75% as just 5 of the 20 field players were alive when Bank of England stopped producing £1 notes in 1988.
Given the inexperience that comes with youth, as well as the fact that the team is several years younger than peak performance age, there is a peculiar sort of optimism surrounding the side, albeit one that still manages to be more realistic than expectations for other major tournaments of recent vintage.
Under the tutelage of Roy Hodgson England haven’t lost a non-friendly since they were ousted from the last World Cup, and enter Euro as the only team to win all of their qualifying matches. Those facts coupled with deeper runs England have made with other youthful squads at tournaments like the 2006 World Cup hint at the potential for a deep run in France.
Given all that, bookmakers such as Paddy Power have installed The Young Lions as one of the better sides in the tournament, with opening odds of 9/1 trailing only Spain, Germany, and the French hosts.
One of the young pups giving English fans the most hope is Tottenham star and the Premiership’s reigning scoring king, Harry Kane. As would seem obvious when discussing a player that just led his league in goals scored, Kane was in fine form this year and was named Premier League Player of the Month for March as well as garnering PFA Team of the Year honors for the second consecutive season.
On the international side of things, Kane contributed three goals in Euro qualifying and two more against Turkey and Germany in March and May, respectively. If this England side is going to go far in France, Kane will almost certainly need to maintain that level of performance.
Fortunately, this is something odds makers such as those at Winner Sports feel may happen as they have given him 12/1 odds to emerge with the tournament’s Golden Boot, tied with Olivier Giroud for the third best odds behind Thomas Muller, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Antoine Griezmann.
Perhaps equally important, albeit in a different way, will be the performance of one of England’s oldest players, Captain Wayne Rooney. Euro 2016 will be Rooney’s first major competition since taking over the armband from Steven Gerrard, and how he handles that role will go a long way towards determining the team’s success.
In a Euro qualifying match against Switzerland Rooney became England’s all-time scoring leader, but his leadership will almost certainly have to play a bigger role than his goalscoring - particularly with the talents of Kane, Jamie Vardy, and Daniel Sturridge all vying for playing time at the forward positions - if The Three Lions are going to advance deep into the tournament.
So far his captaincy has been an unqualified success, with the national team pulling 10 victories from 10 Euro qualifying matches, something fans and players alike hope will continue in France.
The biggest potential weakness for this England side is going to be the back line. Long gone are the days of John Terry and Ashley Cole providing solid, veteran play in front of the keeper, with new and inexperienced faces stepping into the defence. Only two defenders remain from England’s disappointing 2014 World Cup side, vice-captain Gary Cahill and third captain Chris Smalling, while the five other members of the position group only count 50 international caps between them.
Cahill and Smalling will need to step up big time in the centre of the back line while hoping the youngsters defending the wings can learn quickly. If that does not happen, all of the offensive fire power The Three Lions are bringing to the tournament may be for naught.
Health, as it is for all teams, is the other concern England has heading in to the tournament. Sturridge suffered a calf injury in May that caused him to miss the team’s May 27 friendly against Australia before returning to training the following week, and the forward has a lengthy history of injuries that should keep fans as well as his team uneasy. Concerns over the health of Sturridge may have played a role in the inclusion of teenager Marcus Rashford in the squad.
Also worth keeping an eye on is Smalling, who was seen icing his left knee after training just days before the start of the competition. An already questionable defence cannot afford to lose the Manchester United centre-back.
So will the youngsters step up on the big stage? Or will a shaky defence and the injury bug send The Three Lions home disappointed once more? The team’s first match is against Russia on Saturday the 11, and 90 minutes later the footie world should have a better idea of what to expect from the talented young squad.
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