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A look at England’s defensive frailties ahead of the World Cup

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Aug-24 23:46 first published at 23:46 PM


“Invincibility lies in defense; the possibility of victory in attack,” wrote renowned Chinese strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu. So who knows what his thoughts are on Gareth Southgate’s England squad ahead of this winter’s World Cup? The Three Lions have been lacking in a certain leonine presence of late, with just one goal in their last four games and a slew of looming grievances to settle before heading to FIFA’s festival of human rights abuses in Qatar. Even so, as declawed as the attack has looked in recent performances, it’s nothing compared to the individual components of England’s defense, whose discrepancies at home have been so haphazard as to make Alex Jones’ attorneys look like Erin Brokovich. The list of underwhelming options available to Southgate would almost be amusing if it weren’t so serious. It’s a little like going to see a pantomime performance of Snow White where the only two dwarfs the director can remember are Dopey and Sleepy. Harry Maguire’s form – and indeed his reputation – has plummeted like a fridge freezer in an elevator shaft in recent months, in a fall from grace worthy of Tonya Harding. Only two games into the new season, Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag appears to be looking for other options at the back – though, to be fair to Maguire, as the old adage goes, if he’s doing nothing, he’s doing nothing wrong. Similarly, United teammate Luke Shaw and his starting spot at Old Trafford appear to be in jeopardy for reasons best described as “simple common sense.” On the other side of Manchester, John Stones would be seeing fewer minutes than a blind watchmaker if it weren’t for City’s mounting defensive injury problems, while Tyrone Mings is only guaranteed a spot in Aston Villa’s backline thanks to Ezra Konsa’s gaffes and Diego Carlos’ spontaneously combusting Achilles. Conor Coady and James Tarkowski, once dark horses in the English Centre-Back Derby, will still fancy their chances, but must be mindful of the fact that they play their club football at Goodison Park, a foreboding place where dreams go to die these days – a footballing antithesis to Disneyland. Ben Chilwell is being kept out of Chelsea’s starting XI at left-back by West London’s latest Sideshow Bob impersonator, and at right-back… well, how long do you have? Kyle Walker is still attempting to persuade St. James’ Park security to let him back in for his washbag after Allan Saint-Maximin repeatedly sent him to the car park on Sunday afternoon, and Reece James is being played out of position to accommodate *checks notes*. Trent Alexander-Arnold is arguably playing some of the worst football of his career, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek is at wing-back (neither do I). So, what should be done? Well, there are two real options. The first is to call on some of the lesser utilised weapons in Southgate’s armoury. They may be in a minority, but there have been some bright English sparks at the back in recent weeks. Kieran Trippier, when he’s not forcing Kevin de Bruyne into surprise limbo competitions, continues to impress for Newcastle United, while Arsenal’s Ben White right-back experiment, although in its infancy, is already showing promising results. On the continent too, Fikayo Tomori has dazzled as the anointed choice of Paolo bloody Maldini himself at Italian champions AC Milan. The problem with blooding fresher talent (at least in the case of White and Tomori) now, however, is that England have just two games to go before they jet off to the Middle East, and those are against fellow European heavyweights Germany and Italy. Usually when people talk about a baptism of fire, the assumption is that it is not also a time trial. Ergo, Southgate is likely to stick with what he knows, despite their persistent frailties. Indeed, the most obvious way to patch over those flaws is to throw another body at the solution. England’s past two tournaments, and the relative success they have brought, have largely been achieved with a five-man defence; three in the centre and two out wide. There is a reason for this. And it’s probably best to remember that reason when Southgate comes to name his starting XI against Iran on November 21st. It’s like our old mate Sun Tzu once said: “Invincibility lies in the defence; the possibility of victory in the attack.” Like it or not, England have to put most of their efforts into the former before they can even begin to think about entertaining the latter.

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