Defence is no longer a weakness for England but Robert Lewandowski poses sternest test since 2020

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Poland coach Paulo Sousa took the unusual step of admitting his side are reliant on captain Robert Lewandowski ahead of England’s World Cup qualifier here in Warsaw tonight.

“We don’t have the same level as England – if they lose a player, they have two or three of the same level. Here it’s just Robert,” said Sousa.

Gareth Southgate was quick to play down the Portuguese’s comments, insisting England are “not just looking at Lewandowski”, but clearly the veteran Bayern Munich striker represents the biggest threat to their hopes of effectively booking a place in Qatar with a sixth straight qualifying win.

England’s defence faced stern examinations at the European Championship but no outstanding individual in Lewandowski’s league and the defeat to Romelu Lukaku’s Belgium in November 2020 was probably the last time they were tested by a centre-forward of the Pole’s calibre. They lost 2-0, with Lukaku creating Belgium’s opening goal.

The record and perception of England’s defence has dramatically shifted since, however, and it is no longer an obvious weakness in Southgate’s squad.

Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford broke records which have stood since 1966 on the way to winning the Golden Glove at the Euros, while Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire were named in UEFA’s team of the tournament. John Stones and Luke Shaw were unfortunate to miss out, while Kieran Trippier also played his part in a number of positions.

England’s qualification to the Euros was punctuated by concerning bouts of openness, including in the chaotic 5-3 win over Kosovo and subsequent 2-1 defeat to the Czech Republic.

The return to the squad of Stones, Walker and Shaw after post-World Cup absences has made a difference but something in England’s belief and togetherness has changed, too.

Even in the home meeting with Poland back in March, there was evidence of fragility, with Stones gifting the visitors a deserved equaliser by dawdling on the ball.

But tellingly, Stones not only recovered to set-up a later winner for Maguire but England did not concede again until Mikkel Damsgaard’s fabulous direct free-kick for Denmark in the Euro 2020 semi-final.

England’s squad no longer feels top-heavy and Southgate on Tuesday hailed the “esprit de corps” which has made his back-four or five such an impressive unit.

“Defending is sometimes taken for granted and I think it’s an art in itself,” said the former England centre-half.

“You have to have a pride in defending and there are details that are really importantly organisationally but also in the desire to really focus on it, take pride in it, take joy in keeping the ball out of the net, enjoy making those last-ditch clearances, making sure your positioning is correct early, making sure your body positioning is right and communication.

“They are a group who talk well, organise each other. So there’s a real esprit de corps, if you like, about that unit and that’s how it has to be. They have got that, they have grasped that and their defensive record over a long period of time now is exceptional. It gives us as a bedrock for the rest of the team to go and play.”

Lewandowski will test England’s defensive resolve, with Southgate expected to revert to the back four of Walker, Maguire, Stones and Shaw which started the 4-0 win in Hungary after making 11 changes for Sunday’s rout of Andorra.

While there are continued debates over the make-up of England’s midfield and front line, the quartet – along with the versatile Trippier – have quickly made the defence the most stable area of this England squad, with Ben Chilwell failing to make the latest cut and Trent Alexander-Arnold having to audition for a midfield spot.

“[Previously] we were constantly having to chop and change because we never had people fit,” Southgate said. “It’s been great to have that stability of selection. The players out of the squad know they’ve got to fight to get into the team and that’s what happens with

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