Gareth Southgate no longer finds any delight in seeing his England players compete for their clubs. Every tackle bears the potential for catastrophe. His best-laid plans for Qatar run the risk of collapsing at every bend, slide, or strain.
The monotonous trip Southgate takes to Premier League stadiums has turned into a drag.
The number of injuries, tears, and strains has risen over the past few weeks, with England’s defense suffering the most. Playing for his nation, John Stones suffered a hamstring injury. It was groin surgery for Kyle Walker. On his knee, Reece James is wearing a brace for safety. Harry Maguire has a thigh problem and his form is already deteriorating. Southgate may have imagined starting that quartet at the World Cup next month in a perfect scenario.
What remaining defensive combos exist then? Who might unexpectedly find themselves in conflict? with a few former England defenders’ assistance.
Does England intend to use a back three or four?
At the 2018 World Cup, Southgate still laments not having the option to transition between a back four and a back three. Based on the opposition, he would like to be able to chop and change. That was shown at the previous year’s European Championships, where the three were saved for the more difficult matches against Germany in the knockout round and Italy in the championship game.
First, regarding Harry Maguire: Will he truly begin in Qatar?
This season, Maguire has appeared in two more 90-minute matches for England than he has for Manchester United in the Premier League. The 29-year-old was recently sidelined by a hamstring injury, but he had already given up his spot in Erik ten Hag’s team during the 4-0 loss at Brentford. He nevertheless played a key role in the England team’s success in the last two major competitions.
Although Southgate acknowledged that the player’s insufficient playing time at United is “not an ideal situation,” he still has faith in the center-half and expects that Maguire will receive more playing time. Before last month’s Nations League matches against Germany and Italy, in which Maguire participated in both, the national manager remarked, “If we thought there were experienced players ready to step in and play at a level above him there would be a different decision.” However, he is our most effective aerial center-back.
Who else would make up Southgate’s back three in an ideal world?
The three would likely consist of Maguire on the left, Stones in the center, and Walker on the right if everyone was healthy and on point. In the matches where England switched back to playing three at the back at Euro 2020, that combination was utilized.
Stones suffered a hamstring injury during the tense 3-3 draw with Germany in the final Nations League match in September, but he should be back in the Manchester City lineup well before Qatar. The role of Walker, a clubmate, is even less certain.
Walker underwent surgery for a groin issue, and it is uncertain if he will have played any football in the months leading up to the competition. Southgate would likely be tempted to wait and see if Walker recovers in time, despite his importance to the system and the versatility he provides.
Walker’s natural successor would have been James, but during his team’s Champions League victory at AC Milan last week, James injured knee ligaments. Although he may sound upbeat about getting better soon, he has only been wearing a knee brace for a month.
Stones and Maguire may play in the midfield, with Kieran Trippier and Luke Shaw at fullback. Would the manager trust that lineup against the better teams, especially without defensive midfielder Kalvin Phillips, whose effect at City has been ruined by a shoulder injury?
Could England’s back line simply consist of their three most seasoned center-halves?
Stones (59 caps), Maguire (48), and Dier (47), who was just returned to the national squad after a two-year hiatus, would be the candidates, as Southgate did for the recent Nations League match against Germany. Under Antonio Conte, the Tottenham Hotspur defender frequently plays in the centre of a back three and is doing well there. His recall was merited.