England fans have been voicing their concerns over the Three Lions’ defensive options for the Qatar World Cup, with many seeing the back line as a ‘weak link’ in the team. But is that a fair assessment?
Gareth Southgate has (controversially) selected nine Premier League defenders for his squad, each offering something different. However, the prospect that some may have to play out of position is not filling the England faithful with optimism.
Southgate is expected to stick with a three-at-the-back formation for England’s opener against Iran on Monday, but who will feature?
One of the England boss’s favourites is Harry Maguire, who featured in all but two of England’s matches in Euro 2020, in an unbelievable run which saw them reach the final. Maguire put in some impressive displays, keeping three clean sheets as well as netting a goal against Ukraine in the quarter-finals, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him on the team sheet in Qatar.
The only question is though, should a player who for much of this season hasn’t been the first choice at his club be playing for his national team? Maguire has made only four league appearances for Manchester United this season, seemingly behind Lisandro Martinez and Victor Lindelof in the pecking order… and you can only imagine the fume if he were to make a mistake against Iran. It’ll be interesting to see if Southgate sticks with him.
John Stones is probably the most obvious other option. The 28-year-old is an excellent ball-playing defender and a regular feature in a fantastic Manchester City side. If he’s good enough for Pep Guardiola, surely he’s good enough for Southgate, right? The only caveat is that he’s mostly featured as a right-back this season. (Which as we know, England does not have a shortage of) but a player of his quality should be able to fit into a back three with ease.
Kyle Walker (another right back) is likely to be part of Southgate’s plans too… the only danger though is that the 32-year-old has been sidelined with a groin problem since early October, so it could be a big risk to throw him straight in.
Ben White (ANOTHER right back) is a solid option, especially given the Gunners’ phenomenal form this season. Despite recently featuring mostly as a full-back, for most of his career, White has played as a centre-half. With his confidence on the ball, he could be perfect for a three-at-the-back formation and therefore the man to step in for England’s opener.
Honestly, Gary Neville must be thanking his lucky stars that when he was around the only real competition for his full-back spot was… his brother. Now, England could field an entire team of right-backs and probably do alright. It’s fair to say the idea of Neville playing at centre-back doesn’t fill me with confidence though.
Other options for the back three include Conor Coady (although his Everton side just got thrashed 3-0 by Bournemouth… oh dear) and Eric Dier, who has featured 15 times for Spurs this season, helping his side to four clean sheets. Dier is not really one of Southgate’s favourites though, making just six appearances since 2019.
Looking at all that, you might think England fans have a right to be worried! However, according to John Stones, England’s defence should be seen as one of their greatest assets.
Speaking to The Sun, Stones said:
“I am a bit insulted, to be fair.
“Sometimes we forget about what players have done in the past — and what they have done in big-game scenarios — and we focus on the negative.
“You don’t lose quality or class and big-game players turn up, which as an England squad we have done over the past five years, especially in the last World Cup and Euros.”
It’s important to remember that in the Euros last summer, Southgate’s men kept five clean sheets and did not concede a single goal from open play throughout the tournament, with Stones being ever-present in England’s defence
“Euro 2020 was incredible from that aspect, of not conceding goals.’
“And you will have heard it for years but the top teams who are successful keep clean sheets in tournaments — that is the basic platform for your team.
“…We had something you can’t teach, or train. We were just on the same page with our mentality. I am excited and positive for us to do that again.”
The big question is, CAN England do it again?
You feel that if England go 1-0 down to Iran two minutes into the game on Monday, then the collective sighs around the nation will be palpable. Admittedly though, it is good to see one of England’s stalwarts at the back brimming with confidence.
If England are to do well in the World Cup this year, their performances at the back need to replicate their Euro 2020 form. Let’s just hope the abundance of right-backs playing out of position and the lack of any left-footed centre-back options doesn’t prove to be a problem.
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