Tournament success is built on defence, and England’s is a concern

John Stones and Harry Maguire

Not one of Gareth Southgate’s first-choice back four for this summer’s Euros started a Premier League game in the previous matchday round, so the England manager will embark on the final day hoping that things can only get better.

The picture has changed again, as it so often does in international football. His England team have, so the received wisdom goes, as good a collection of attacking players as any in the competition. But success in tournaments is built on a solid defence. In seven games including the final of Euro 2020, England conceded just two goals. Italy, who beat them in the final, just four.

Kyle Walker, one of the great players of the era, will surely be back in the Manchester City starting XI at the Etihad on Sunday. He is in form. It is not quite so certain for John Stones who, once again under Pep Guardiola, appears to have slipped out of the reckoning, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Southgate’s other first choice centre-half, Harry Maguire is injured. His Manchester United team-mate Luke Shaw is really injured – with no clear return date in sight.

Shaw may not even be able to play in the warm-up friendlies for the Euros next month, which would ordinarily raise questions about whether he should even be selected at all. In this case it feels that Southgate has no other choice. He has a 26-man squad which gives him some room for manoeuvre although unfortunately no fit experienced international left-back. Ben Chilwell is injured again. Shaw, who would be his first pick if all options were available, has played 15 games all season and none since Feb 18.

Luke Shaw
Luke Shaw is injured but will be given time because he remains Gareth Southgate's most reliable option at left-back - World Cup News Pool

At right-back, Reece James’ red card against Brighton which came as the Chelsea captain was effectively starting what would be a de facto pre-season, attempting to regain fitness after surgery. He has one start since Dec 10. That means James will be unavailable for Chelsea’s final day game against Bournemouth, 90 minutes that would move him that bit closer to match fitness as he attempts to get himself up to speed at the end of the season. Trent Alexander-Arnold is now selected as a midfielder.

At centre-back even Marc Guehi, now an established squad player and very much a potential starter for England, has not started Palace’s last two games. Lewis Dunk came off at half-time for Brighton’s game against Chelsea. Tyrone Mings has not played for Aston Villa since August.

There is still no naturally left-sided centre-half aside from Jarrad Branthwaite who, with 40 games for Everton this season, has a very strong case to be part of the squad. Ezri Konsa and Joe Gomez all come into the reckoning as cover, especially given their versatility. Once again the Ben White question raises itself awkwardly – were he to reverse his decision to withdraw his services then there is little doubt that the Arsenal man would be picked.

Jarrad Branthwaite
As a rare, naturally left-sided centre-back, Everton's Jarrad Branthwaite is a firm contender for the squad - HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images

Even at goalkeeper, there are considerable questions over the cover after Jordan Pickford. Nick Pope has not played since his shoulder dislocation in December. Aaron Ramsdale has played two games since the turn of the year.

The deepest part of the England talent pool for Southgate has long been the midfield and attackers. There will be some very good players not going to Euro 2024 even with the three extra places available in the squad. In previous years there would have been no question over the likes of Ollie Watkins, Ivan Toney, Eberechi Eze and James Maddison, but not all of them could be considered certainties.

In previous generations one might even wonder if an England manager would look again at persuading Michael Olise – overlooked this week by France for their Euros squad – to change his mind. The Palace attacker is still eligible to represent England at senior level having previously declared for France but is yet to be capped by Didier Deschamps. It would be a change of previous policy to try anew to recruit Olise, although one could make an argument for doing so.

Were Olise a left-footed centre-half of equivalent talent, rather than a beguiling wide attacker, one could envisage Southgate abandoning his usual approach and trying to sell an England career to the player.

It is the defensive department of Southgate’s side that has not seen the same competition for places as has been the case in attack. Walker, Maguire and Stones all started the 2018 World Cup semi-final against Croatia as a three-man defence. Kieran Trippier, one of the wing-backs that day, is likely to be included in the summer squad too. Pickford was also in the side.Yet from the midfielders and attackers that day only Harry Kane is still a starter for Southgate. He has a back injury that caused him to miss the end of Bayern’s season.

The international careers of Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard have melted away, while Raheem Sterling has been cut ruthlessly from Southgate’s list of favourites – not least because the England manager had plenty of alternatives. The genesis of Southgate’s defensive options have been very different and now, one month from what might well be his last tournament, the injuries and indifferent form of many of those players must be a concern.

As ever, success in international football is a long meticulous project into which two years – or eight in Southgate’s situation – go into performing in a brief window of time. A month of summer football can never be more than a snapshot of a team’s form and you need to be as well-prepared as possible to eliminate the potential problems. But there are some that are harder to cope with than others.

England’s defensive personnel have not really changed over the Southgate era – Walker and Stones remain crucial. Maguire and Shaw have proved the best options beyond that in the remaining two positions. The international game is a measure of a country’s resources at one moment in time, although the deeper the options, the better the chances.

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