England are trying to force square pegs into round holes at left-back

Fikayo Tomori - England are trying to force square pegs into round holes at left-back

No wonder Gareth Southgate sent out a plea for parents to get their kids using their left feet in the build up to England’s flat European Championship qualifying victory over Malta.

Other national managers might get out the world’s smallest violins for the England manager, given the depth of talent he has in certain positions, but left-back looks like a potential problem ahead of next summer’s finals.

Southgate cannot count on Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell both being fit, given their injury records, and he does not seem quite sure where to turn without the Manchester United and Chelsea players.

Shaw has played three times for England since the World Cup thanks to injuries, while Chilwell has only managed two international appearances in two years.

Maybe Levi Colwill, who has played at left-back for Chelsea this season, at times ahead of Chilwell, will provide a solution, but he too was unavailable for the visit of Malta and Southgate bizarrely trialled Fikayo Tomori for 45 minutes in the position.

One suspects right-footed Tomori was just as surprised as everyone else to find out he would be filling in on the left side of England’s defence, rather than Kieran Trippier, who has played there for Southgate before.

“We’ve asked people to fill roles that aren’t their usual position, like Fikayo, and it’s not easy for him to build down that side,” said Southgate. “We’ve got problems with availability in that area of the pitch and you are trying to give some players a rest. We have a lot of players that weren’t in there tonight.”

Despite the unavailability of players, Southgate started with two recognised full-backs on the Wembley pitch and yet one – Trent Alexander-Arnold – was in midfield, as central defender Tomori was asked to play out of position.

Trent Alexander-Arnold - England are trying to force square pegs into round holes at left-back
Trent Alexander-Arnold moved from his usual left-back position to midfield, while Tomori – briefly – switched from right to left in the England defence - Getty Images/Matthew Ashton

Those who have watched Tomori’s career closely can only remember him playing at left-back once previously as a professional, when he was on loan at Brighton from Chelsea back in 2017. Since then, he has played as a centre-back, a right-back, in a back three, but never left-back.

So for Tomori to go off at half-time and be replaced by Kyle Walker, with Trippier moving to the left, amounted to a largely wasted evening for the AC Milan player, who was booked during the opening 45 minutes.

Tomori has not had the easiest of times under Southgate this season, having also been left out of the match squad for the victory over Italy that clinched qualification for the Euros in October.

Brentford’s Rico Henry and Newcastle United’s Dan Burn, who both play well for their clubs at left-back, are also currently injured. But Southgate has never shown any inclination to call them up while fit when either Shaw or Chilwell are out, which is more often than not.

Compare Southgate’s left-back situation with the depth he has in other areas, in particular the abundance of wide players and attacking midfielders. Jude Bellingham and James Maddison were ruled out of this squad with injury and yet England still had Bukayo Saka, Jarrod Bowen and Cole Palmer on the bench, with Raheem Sterling watching from his sofa at home.

While England’s strengths should outweigh any weakness in the left-back position, it can cause a problem when Southgate’s team try to play out from the back – particularly when John Stones is also out, as was the case on Friday night.

The right-footed Tomori and Trippier are naturally more inclined to look inside to Harry Maguire and with Stones next to him, the Manchester Unite centre-back can struggle to progress the ball forwards.

This may all feel like nit-picking, but small margins increasingly separate the also-rans from the winners and Southgate knows only too well that it will be win or bust for him at England at the Euros, having reached a final and the semi-finals of a World Cup.

The ideal scenario for Southgate, of course, is that Shaw and Chilwell return from injury and remain fit for the second-half of the season, giving him the opportunity to take them both to Germany.

But he needs a plan for if one or both of them are unavailable and trying to force square pegs into round holes would be far from ideal, as the unfortunate Tomori will be able to confirm.

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