England team news: Gareth Southgate must make case for defence as squad fly out to World Cup base

England team news: Gareth Southgate must make case for defence as squad fly out to World Cup base

Ahead of Monday’s World Cup opener against Iran, no England team selection decision will be more hotly debated than that of the defence.

England manager Gareth Southgate is tasked with finding cohesion in an area that is widely considered the weakness in his 26-man squad that flew out to the Middle East today.

Privately, Southgate and his coaching staff have a good idea of the side that will start against Iran.

But when England train at their Al Wakrah training facility for the first time tomorrow, Southgate will set about finalising the best platform behind his array of attacking talent.

The form of Harry Maguire remains a concern going into the tournament. The Manchester United defender is low on confidence and has made only three Premier League starts this season.

After he was booed by England fans at Wembley in March, Southgate backed Maguire and said he was ready to risk his reputation on him.

Maguire has played just 233 minutes of football for United since his last England appearance in September, but Southgate views his tournament experience as vital.

John Stones is nailed on to start and has said he is looking forward to rekindling his centre-back partnership with fellow Yorkshireman Maguire.

Eric Dier, Connor Coady and Trent Alexander-Arnold. (The FA via Getty Images)
Eric Dier, Connor Coady and Trent Alexander-Arnold. (The FA via Getty Images)

Should Maguire start and struggle against Iran, though, Southgate leaves himself open for criticism.

Arsenal’s Ben White is, arguably, the form defender in the England squad.

White has excelled for Mikel Arteta’s Premier League table-toppers and is pushing for a start, with Kyle Walker expected to miss the Iran game as he battles back to fitness after groin surgery.

Southgate favourite Conor Coady is an alternative option, but he did not play a single minute at Euro 2022 and seems likely to be a squad player again.

Eric Dier forced his way back into the England squad after a strong start to the season with Tottenham, but his club form has dipped badly in recent weeks.

“Form can be temporary,” said Southgate, after confirming his squad last week. “That is a very individual thing. The key is to work on the training pitch — and we do not have a long time to do that. We have got to see very quickly what people will present.

Ben White with Prince William. (The FA via Getty Images)
Ben White with Prince William. (The FA via Getty Images)

“We have got a pretty good idea of where people stand at the moment, but there is an opportunity here, because there are people in good form who could push into the starting line-up.

“We are not steadfast on a starting XI. We are pretty certain next week who will be in that starting team, but there are positions we want to look at to see how people present.”

Southgate’s studies have shown him that World Cup-winning teams have experienced defenders.

Four years ago, Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti were at the heart of the triumphant France side.

In 2014, Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels were the foundation for Germany. In 2010, it was Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol as centre-backs for Spain, while in 2006, Fabio Cannavaro and Marco Materazzi were crucial for Italy.

Despite that, you sense the door is open for newcomers such as White to impress this week. But do not be at all surprised to see Southgate’s usual suspects facing Iran in six days’ time as England kick off their Qatar campaign.