Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham are the key to England winning the Euros, not Gareth Southgate

England's Jude Bellingham, right, and Harry Kane during a training session in Blankenhain - Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham are the key to England winning the Euros, not Gareth Southgate
Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham are key to England's chances at Euro 2024 - AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis

International tournaments are won by the country whose A-list attacking players turn up. For England to win in Germany, the stars must shine.

That is a lot of pressure for Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham, especially, to carry over the next four weeks. So be it. They strike me as characters who will relish that responsibility in the knowledge that World Cup and European Championship history is written by the individuals who produce era-defining moments, more than extraordinary teams led by brilliant managers.

That is the single biggest difference between club and international football.

During a Premier League and Champions League campaign, we see the game as a shoot-out between competing coaches using contrasting strategies.

There are many important elements to winning a league title or being crowned champions of Europe, but the managers are kings. Obviously, they need a high-class squad to execute their vision, but the most important figure at any club will always be the head coach working day-to-day on the training pitch.

If anything, that is accelerating thanks to super-coaches such as Pep Guardiola. Club owners realise that a brilliant squad demands the right leader. That is why there was so much deliberation about Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United future before they decided to stick with him, why Liverpool fans are concerned about heading into the post-Jurgen Klopp era, and why Manchester City fans are fearful of the day Guardiola has had enough of English football.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola before the Premier League match between Manchester City and West Ham United last month - Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham are the key to England winning the Euros, not Gareth Southgate
In club football, managers such as Pep Guardiola are the key difference makers - Getty Images/Visionhaus

Over the next four weeks of Euro 2024, I have little or no expectation that a Monday Night Football-style analysis of fresh and innovative tactics will be required. For most of the participants, the systems available, given the personnel at the manager’s disposal, are limited.

Beyond the major tournaments, international football is not an exciting spectacle for precisely those reasons. There may be the occasional exception which takes us by surprise, but international qualifiers are generally boring, predictable and uncompetitive. Those nations who do not have the superstar, X-factor players will naturally focus on defensive organisation, recognising their best chance of success is to keep the games low-scoring in the hope of stifling the most creative players and securing a draw or narrow shock win.

There is a danger of group games at the Euros going the same way, although the higher stakes inevitably mean the tension, excitement and drama is ramped up.

The puzzle for those sides most dominant in possession is how to unpick low-block defences.

It means competition football is defined by creative and goalscoring geniuses who produce when it matters.

Lionel Messi carried that burden for Argentina in Qatar and ultimately delivered. Kylian Mbappe did likewise for France in 2018, and from Pele and Mario Kempes, to Romario and Ronaldo, it is the same story through the ages.

My first memory of a major international tournament is the Mexico World Cup in 1986. Then, as now, it was all about the iconic players. I loved the Denmark side of Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjaer, who played such an exciting, attacking style. Gary Lineker became world-renowned for his England goals, and the competition will forever be synonymous with Diego Maradona inspiring his country to victory. Argentina’s World Cup-winning manager that year, Carlos Bilardo, has almost been relegated to the role of a support act to his captain. With respect to Lionel Scaloni, he is probably destined for the same fate, Qatar considered Messi’s competition rather than a result of a manager’s masterplan.

Diego Maradona holds up the World Cup trophy after Argentina's 3-2 victory over West Germany at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City - Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham are the key to England winning the Euros, not Gareth Southgate
Argentina's World Cup win in 1986 was inspired more by Diego Maradona than any tactical masterplan by manager Carlos Bilardo - AP Photo/Carlo Fumagalli

This time, France will again turn to Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann to fire them to victory. Germany have match-winners in Jamal Musiala and Florian Wirtz, and Spain’s Pedri is a player every supporter will be looking forward to seeing in full flow.

For England to end their long wait for international glory, we will need to look at Germany 2024 as the tournament in which Kane, Bellingham or perhaps Phil Foden elevated themselves to England legends. They are the cause for optimism because they have the capacity to decide the biggest matches, especially if and when England face a stronger nation in the knockout phases.

What England lacked in their defeats by Croatia (2018), Italy (2021) and France (2022) was a man-of-the-match performance from their talisman to make the difference. The margins in all those games were small, as they have often been whenever England have gone close since 1966.

The common theme whenever England leave their mark at an international tournament is their main attacking weapons firing – think Gary Lineker in 1986, Paul Gascoigne in 1990, Alan Shearer at Euro ’96 and Wayne Rooney in Euro 2004. Under Gareth Southgate, Kane (2018) and Raheem Sterling (Euro 2020) have produced their best in an England shirt on the biggest stage.

There is a broad expectation that Southgate will leave the England job should he not lead the side to victory this time, but some of the judgments on his reign strike me as harsh. The idea that anyone could have performed better than him over the past six years is speculative.

England head coach Gareth Southgate during a training session at the Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld in Jena - Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham are the key to England winning the Euros, not Gareth Southgate
Gareth Southgate is expected to quit should England fail to win Euro 2024 - PA/Adam Davy

What would other coaches have done so differently? What changes in personnel and tactics can the next England manager make? International coaches must work from game to game, unsure how injuries and form will dictate selections in the months between qualifiers and when a tournament comes along. It is a great theory that Southgate could have arrived in Germany with a settled starting XI of players fine-tuned and choreographed to play like Manchester City, Arsenal or Liverpool. Back in the real world, it is more complicated.

The debate around this particular England team has been repetitive, focusing on whether the right attackers have been selected or whether there should be more creative players on the pitch. Judgment on that is based on the result.

Southgate has been criticised throughout his reign for being too cautious, but France’s Didier Deschamps and Italy’s Roberto Mancini were cut from the same cloth when winning the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020.

This time, Southgate has picked his squad on form, and no doubt he will make his selections based on the same criteria when seeing the training sessions. It does not change the fundamental truth. His attacking untouchables are Kane and Bellingham, because he knows that whoever England play, the opposition will fear them.

Ahead of the first game with Serbia on Sunday, the nation should not expect a grand spirit of adventure from the manager to be decisive. Whatever the tactics, England’s hopes rest on the form of their world-class players.