While it may be harsh to read too much into the Nations League fixtures due to the fact that they are effectively being played in pre-season, they did raise issues that England will need to resolve. One thing that is clear from these fixtures is that Gareth Southgate doesn’t know his best eleven and there is a lot of work to be done in preparation for Euro 2021. England lacked creativity and were blunt in attack in both fixtures and didn’t register a single effort on goal in the first half of the 0-0 draw with Denmark.
While Southgate’s hands were tied slightly by availability, not helped by the behaviour of Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood, the sides fielded against both Iceland and Denmark show that there is a lot to think about. For starters, England played a different shape in both games, lining up in a 4-3-3 formation against Iceland and a 3-4-3 against Denmark.
The focus of this piece is the full-back areas for England. England started the Iceland game with Kyle Walker at right-back and Kieran Trippier filling in at left-back. Against Denmark Southgate opted for Trent Alexander-Arnold at right wing-back and Trippier at left wing-back. It is however worth nothing that Southgate’s options at full-back for the Denmark game were hampered by Kyle Walker’s sending off in the victory over Iceland.
It is difficult to gauge what Southgate makes of his options at full-back from this international break, mainly due to the lack of available left-backs. If fit, it would be expected that Ben Chilwell, newly of Chelsea, and Luke Shaw of Manchester United would be the pair chosen. Of the two Chilwell is likely to be Southgate’s first choice due to his consistent performances and he had started England’s previous three competitive games prior to this round of fixtures.
Shaw has suffered a number of injuries which will always be a concern, especially with tournament football. However, he does provide a good option for Southgate, whether that be cover or in a starting role. The worry for Southgate is that with both Chilwell and Shaw injured he obviously doesn’t have confidence in the other English left-backs that are available for selection, as demonstrated by the fact that no natural left-backs were selected in this squad.
Bukayo Saka is with the under-21 national side and after a breakthrough season is perhaps unfortunate to be left out. He is not naturally a left-back but has filled in more than adeptly at Arsenal this season and it seems strange that Southgate didn’t want to, at the very least, have a look at him in training. Another player that can perhaps consider themselves hard done by is Charlie Taylor of Burnley. He has had another solid season on the left side of Burnley’s resolute defence and the feeling is that had he played for a more glamorous club he could have found himself in the squad. An argument which is supported further by the fact that the impressive Dwight McNeil has not even been included in the under-21’s after a remarkable season at Burnley.
While Southgate will no doubt be exploring alternative options at left-back over the course of the new season, it is the right-back position that will be giving him more headaches. In this squad he has Trippier, Walker, Alexander-Arnold and Ainsley Maitland-Niles who could also be considered a right-back after playing most of his games for Arsenal there and coming on for Alexander-Arnold for the dying embers of the Denmark game.
After not being included in the last two squads for England, this international break had something of a last chance saloon feel for Kyle Walker. Southgate showed faith in the Manchester City full-back and started him in the victory over Iceland only for Walker to fly recklessly into a needless challenge to pick up his second yellow card and leave England playing with ten men. Post-match Southgate explained the emphasis he has put to his squad on not getting red cards in his time in charge, citing the number of times it has led to England’s departure from major tournaments. Walker himself seemed crestfallen when he addressed the media after the game and looked as though he knew that his England career is very much in the balance.
He was deployed at right centre-back in Russia in 2018 and his pace was a real asset in that role. Some of his off the field antics may have played a part in Southgate’s decision to leave him out of the recent squads but if he is to revert to the back three that gave England success in 2018 then it would be a bold decision not to take Walker to Euro 2021. He may find himself playing to save his England career this season but a season of positive performances for City would be difficult to ignore. At 30 he may see this as his last chance of a major tournament for England and he will be desperate to ensure his 49th cap isn’t his last.
Kieran Trippier delighted England fans with his free-kick to put England 1-0 up over Croatia in the World Cup semi-final in 2018. However, a poor season at Tottenham and a move to Atlético Madrid later and his stock may have fallen somewhat since that night. A move to Spain and out of the English media spotlight will have done him no harm. He will have learnt a lot about the dark arts of defending under the tutelage of Atlético boss Diego Simeone which could be a useful tool for England.
Southgate still seems to trust Trippier and he was deployed as the covering left-back and left wing-back in the games against Iceland and Denmark. Whether he can still be considered a starter will depend on the season he has at Atlético and what Southgate thinks he needs from his full backs for the Euros. His crossing is his biggest strength and has been a valuable weapon for England but his slight lack of pace may work against him.
Trent Alexander-Arnold has to be in the driving seat for the first choice right-back position. Coming off the back of winning the PFA Young Player of the Year award he started the draw with Denmark at right wing-back. It would seem odd that he is yet to really tie down the right-back spot with England and has never really put together a run of games for his national side with 11 appearances to his name. This may owe to the perceived defensive weaknesses he has, a problem that isn’t often highlighted at Liverpool due to their dominance and attacking style. His range of passing, crossing ability and goal threat are undoubted but in games where England may find themselves against superior opposition in the latter stages of a major tournament his defensive capabilities will certainly be called into question.
Alexander-Arnold is still only 21 years old however and is sure to have a long and successful England career ahead of him. Despite his youthful years he has no shortage of big game experience, appearing in two Champions League finals, a Club Word Cup final, and being an integral part of Liverpool’s Premier League title win. He also has experience of a major international tournament as he was part of the 23-man squad at the 2018 World Cup in Russia and featured in the two games against Belgium.
One man who can consider himself unfortunate to have not received a full England cap to date is Aaron Wan-Bissaka. The 22 year-old signed for Manchester United for £50m in the summer of 2019 and has proved a very good addition to the right side of their defence.
His strengths lie in defending and there is work to be done going forward, with the youngster often looking short of ideas in the final third. He has a lot of pace and his ability to make recovery runs is very good. However, his main strength is his defending one-on-one. When tasked with standing up to a winger and winning back possession he is England’s best one-on-one defender. Although he hasn’t been utilised there at club level, he also would appear to have the attributes to play on the right of a back three in a role similar to the one Kyle Walker has performed for his country.
With tournament football in mind versatility is always a selling point for any player in the selection process and it is important to cover all bases with the 23 players selected. A right-back duo of Alexander-Arnold and Wan-Bissaka would appear to do that. In games against lesser nations Alexander-Arnold would provide the attacking prowess required to help to break a side down. When faced with a side that is superior in possession, Wan-Bissaka’s defensive capabilities would make him very useful for Southgate and it would be a surprise if this isn’t considered ahead of the Euros next summer.
One thing that is for certain is that Southgate will have to make some big decisions in advance of Euro 2021 and his full-back positions could create a real dilemma for him. The problem being that at left-back there appears to be a lack of depth and at right-back there is almost too much.
Ashley Young and Danny Rose were the left-backs taken to the 2018 World Cup but it is highly unlikely either will feature for England again moving forward. At right-back there is a far higher chance of the trio of Walker, Alexander-Arnold and Trippier getting another shot at international glory. However, whether all three can, or should, be accommodated into the squad remains to be seen. If an English left-back has an impressive season then they have every chance of making the squad and this should be real motivation for the likes of Bukayo Saka, Charlie Taylor or even Ryan Bertrand to earn his first cap in three years. Southgate has a number of areas that require addressing ready for the Euros and full-back is certainly one of them.