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Unbalanced and undercooked: can England overcome defensive worries?

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The senior centre-half is out. His partner has had an uneven season. There is no specialist left-back. Fitness problems are a part of the mix. And so is balance. It is not difficult to see why Gareth Southgate has worried and, as England count down to their Euro 2024 opener against Serbia on Sunday night, why he surely still does in those moments when the pressure and sheer scale of it all prods at his insides.

The manager has heard the theory. His team will sweep to the final in Berlin because of how blessed he is with attacking options; the variety of them, the depth, which have allowed him to omit Jack Grealish, James Maddison and Marcus Rashford; to phase out Raheem Sterling. It does not seem to matter that Southgate can count on only two players who have scored more than four goals for England – Harry Kane (63), Bukayo Saka (11).

Right now, it feels as though the defence provides the counter-argument; the reality check. When Southgate named 11 defenders in his provisional 33-man squad (12 if you include Trent Alexander-Arnold), he said that he would probably take them all to Germany if the cut-off were straight away, such was the concern over the fitness of many of them.

In the end, he took eight plus Alexander-Arnold, whom he has come to consider primarily as a midfielder, even if he can do a job at right-back, with the headline omission being that of Harry Maguire on injury grounds.

Southgate would lament the lack of cover for Declan Rice in front of the back four, after the fall from grace of Jordan Henderson (mainly because of fitness) and Kalvin Phillips. There is even the argument that Rice, after the season he has had at Arsenal, is better as a No 8, that he could be drawn forward a little too much in his desire to help unlock deep-sitting opponents. Rice’s positional discipline will be vital.

Really, though, it is the left-back situation that has threatened to pull things out of shape. Southgate permitted himself one “gamble” with his defensive squad members, as he put it, and it was Luke Shaw for reasons that went beyond how he would be back slightly earlier than Maguire from injury.

View image in fullscreen Luke Shaw is important for England at left-back but has not played since mid-February. Photograph: Morgan Harlow/The FA/Getty Images

Shaw is the only left-back in the squad but more than that, it is how he brings such excellence in the one-on-ones, how he builds the play with trademark craft; his head-up, outside-of-the-left-boot dribbling style so dynamic. He will be worth waiting for, even if it is the second or third group game. Against that, Southgate has to know that Shaw has not played since mid-February and could need time to regain peak condition. One false move, one stretch too far and it would be over for him.

And so here Southgate is, preparing to start Kieran Trippier at left-back against Serbia, having done so in the warm-up games against Bosnia and Herzegovina then Iceland. It recalls his decision to play the Newcastle right-back ahead of Shaw at left-back in the opening game at Euro 2020 – the 1-0 win over Croatia at Wembley.

Trippier did not overlap going forward that day. He merely dug in and did his job defensively, as instructed. Southgate’s trust in Trippier runs deep and it is supported by the statistics, which are remarkable for somebody who has only started one club game at left-back – for Tottenham against Barnsley in the Carabao Cup in 2017.

Trippier has started 11 times at left-back for England. His record? W8 D2 L1 GA5, the defeat being the untimely one against Iceland last Friday. The games not only include the one against Croatia but also Denmark, Germany and Italy (twice). Trippier has started once for England at left wing-back (a victory over Belgium) and has come on as a substitute at left-back or left wing-back on five occasions, England winning all five and not conceding with him on the pitch.

Southgate has noted the trend for Premier League clubs to play non-specialists at left-back, especially Manchester City and Arsenal, and has also used Joe Gomez in the position, away from his favoured role or roles. As an aside, a penny for the thoughts of Ben Chilwell, a pure left-back who started against Brazil and Belgium in March before being discarded.

It remains easy to fixate on what Trippier does not do. He has not been entirely secure for Newcastle this season and returned from a 10-week calf injury lay-off only in the last knockings of the league programme. His instinct to check on to his right foot and reluctance to get up and around his left winger can lend a lop-sided look to England’s approach work.

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Without Maguire, there is increased responsibility on his longtime sidekick, John Stones, and yet there are concerns over his sharpness after a disjointed season in which he started only 12 league games for City. Injured for England against Belgium, he appeared to have hurt himself again in the first minute against Iceland.

Stones played on until half-time, although it was alarming to see how easily Jón Dagur Thorsteinsson moved inside and away from him before scoring the only goal. Was it the knock that Stones had felt? Southgate expects him to be available for Serbia but will he be 100%? What is clear is that this has not been the Stones of 2022-23.

Southgate retains complete faith in him and also the right-back Kyle Walker, a player whose blistering pace shows no signs of deserting him; it can often feel like a get out of jail free card. Walker, like Stones, is a veteran of four previous tournaments; only Kane from this squad can say the same. It is never a great idea to make judgments on friendlies such as Iceland. When the serious business begins, Southgate believes his leaders will be ready.

They will have to show the way for Maguire’s replacement, most likely Marc Guéhi, even if Southgate has not missed any opportunity of late to name-check Ezri Konsa. Guéhi is another player who looks a little undercooked, having endured a three-month knee injury absence from early February and returned to the Crystal Palace starting XI only on the final day of their season.

Guéhi looked rusty when he started against Bosnia and Iceland, and has only played twice with Stones – in the 4-0 loss to Hungary at Molineux in 2022 and the Iceland defeat. Central defensive relationships take time; look at what Maguire and Stones built and how well it served England at the previous three tournaments. There is precious little time now.

Guéhi could probably have done with starting for Palace a bit earlier than he did but he wanted to make absolutely sure about his recovery. It talks to the diligence of his character. Would he have liked to have had more minutes? Yes. Does he accept that young players cannot choose when the big opportunities come and simply have to grab them when they do? Also, yes.

Southgate knows that international tournament winners always defend soundly. It is unarguably the key to glory. He and his players need to find it – and fast.

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