There were jeers and grumbles of discontent when Gareth Southgate named four right-backs in his 26-man squad for the Euros, with a section of supporters believing it to be an unfathomable decision, while some were dissecting the purpose of each player within the setup. Of course, England switching to a three-back system would have paid homage to Southgate’s peculiar decision, with Kyle Walker a capable make-shift centre back – as seen at the 2018 World Cup – and one of Trent Alexander Arnold, Reece James and Kieran Trippier in the right wing-back role.
Southgate’s armoury of full-backs serve a variety of purposes and Trippier has been no stranger to the experimentation and versatility that has been required in England’s first two warm-up matches. The absence and part absence of Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw after their respective European exploits has seen Trippier play the full ninety minutes at left-back in England’s win over Austria, before sharing the responsibility with the returning Shaw in their victory over Romania.
Although Trippier is unlikely to feature in a more unfamiliar left-back role in the tournament, the decision to take four multifaceted right-backs is beginning to pay dividends for Southgate. Trent Alexander-Arnold was one of the main points of controversy ahead of the whittled down 26-man squad announcement, but he is now cursing lady luck after sustaining a thigh injury against Austria, ending his tournament before it has even begun.
And whilst it is unfortunate to lose Liverpool’s star-studded talent, Southgate can be lauded for making a decision that aligns towards his tactical flexibility in his four right-back selections without the influence of any rogue outsiders. The flexibility of England’s squad has already come into fruition during the warm-up matches and the dizzy heights of tournament football will only heighten this notion.
Southgate will expect to utilise every inch of his squad at his disposal, while the real test will be selecting a side that can best exploit the opposition’s weaknesses from the off and ultimately live up to the expectations of a pre-tournament favorite. Here is a tactical analysis of England’s right-back options, taking their domestic performances from the 2020/21 season, their form at international level and the purpose that each serves for the Three Lions at Euro 2020.
Kieran Trippier – Atlético Madrid
Kieran Trippier’s stellar season in Spain flew under the radar of the British contingent after a title-winning season with Atlético Madrid. There was a tinge of arrogance from a section of English supporters when Trippier was selected, failing to acknowledge the successes of those plying their trade abroad.
Selected on merit for his stand-out performances in Spain, the 30-year-old, who made the switch to Atlético from Tottenham in 2019, was named in the La Liga team of the season ahead of Real Madrid’s Ferland Mendy and Sevilla’s Jesús Navas.
Defending his decision to name Trippier as one of four right-backs, Southgate described them as talented footballers rather than pigeon-holed players. The England boss accused people of forgetting about the former Tottenham man because he played his football abroad, an attitude that has seen the talents of Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho being downplayed, despite the 21-year-old boasting 16 goals and 20 assists in all competitions.
Southgate said: “We’re a bit myopic, that’s why people don’t talk about Kieran because he’s playing in Spain. He’s won La Liga, he’s been voted in the team of the season, nobody mentions him.”
Trippier is more than just a set-piece extraordinaire, he’s a master creator and excellent crosser, possessing a wicked delivery that has often evaded the skill set of Southgate’s other chosen full-backs. A different entity to the explosive right-backs, James and Walker, Trippier possesses unequivocal efficiency in the final third when matched against his counterparts. With six assists to his arsenal in a successful Madrid side, spearheaded by the maverick Luis Suárez, Trippier has become one of the best-attacking right-backs in Europe.
The former Burnley and Tottenham right back has 7.75 Progressive Passes per 90 – ranking him in the 99th percentile in Europe’s top five leagues – breaking down the opposition with moments of brilliance from his wand of a right foot. These moments are what England will hope he can conjure up in their Euro 2020 journey.
When the Three Lions are faced against the expected low blocks of Scotland and the Czech Republic, the ability to probe, remain patient and sustain attacks will be key, while in a tight contest menacing set-piece deliveries and a measured approach in the final third could be the difference, with Kieran Trippier capable of delivering such moments through the various attributes of crossing in his armoury.
Reece James – Chelsea
Under Thomas Tuchel, Reece James has cemented his place among some of Europe’s star-studded talents, winning the Champions League in his second season with Chelsea at senior level. If his call-up to the international set-up with England was ever in question then his performance against Manchester City in the final, in which he pocketed whoever attempted to breach him with consummate ease, securely fastened his seat belt on the Euro 2020 plane.
James embodies the ideal modern full-back, becoming the well-rounded package that is delivering first-class performances at just 21-years-old. From possessing the physical attributes that have prevented his opponents from getting any loose change out of him in 1vs1’s to driving Chelsea up the field with his explosive bursts, James is who you would want in your side when faced against the likes of Kylian Mbappé and Eden Hazard.
Aside from being an excellent 1vs1 defender, James already looks close to the complete full-back. Before excelling at Chelsea, he showcased his breadth of talents in a loan spell at Wigan Athletic. Despite playing the majority of his development career as a full back, James made 13 of his 44 starts for the Tics as a central midfielder, looking perfectly comfortable and shining through like a diamond in the rough.
With his positional and tackling ability a likely formula to build attacks from this summer, much of James’ eye-catching work comes when his side are on the front foot. He is an attacking right-back who looks to stride forward purposefully, able to beat an opponent with quick manipulation of the ball and always looking for viable crossing opportunities.
A natural crosser of the ball and similar to Trippier in that regard, James is adept at beating his opponent with pace by using a heavy touch to knock the ball past his marker before putting the ball into the box with a variety of techniques, arguably the strongest part of his game.
England have the technical players to threaten every team in the competition, but they can fashion space on the overlap for the likes of James who would look to deliver the match-winning moment. James is great at fashioning space for a cross – quickly releasing the ball into the box with his second touch – the sort of quick-thinking that is match-defining in a tournament that rewards those who conjure up the better of these moments.
Kyle Walker – Manchester City
Kyle Walker is a rare elder statesman in England’s youthful squad, featuring in the last two major competitions, Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup. After a rich vein of title-winning successes with Manchester City and previous tournament experience with England, the 31-year-old is a crucial piece to Gareth Southgate’s puzzle. Tournament experience is a rarity in this current crop, but a winning mentality certainly isn’t, with Walker possessing both in abundance.
Much like Reece James, Walker has earned his crust and subsequent plaudits out of being an explosive full-back, remaining at the top level for over a decade. With peaks and troughs that have surfaced throughout an illustrious career so far, Walker is still a large part of Pep Guardiola’s system, becoming accustomed to what is required from the demands within the ever-changing and evolving Manchester City story.
Pep’s rotation policy meant Walker was rested at points of the season, with João Cancelo showcasing his worth in Man City’s recent build-up play patterns. At times it looked as though the Portuguese international had dislodged him for good, but Walker put in a string of consistent performances to land a spot in Southgate’s squad.
Man City’s build-up play highlights the importance of stretching the pitch horizontally to progress the ball, creating space and free men in the process. The interchanging João Cancelo and Kyle Walker are paramount to the creation of space in wide areas as inverted fullbacks, while the attributes of the latter will be crucial in England’s chances of winning a major tournament this summer.
Walker’s greatest attribute is ball carrying over a long distance, driving with the ball from deep in a perpetual motion and entering the opposition half in doing so. Walker is the quicker of three right-backs and his avalanche of Progressive Carries topple the other two contesting that position.
Comparing the Three Right-Back Options
In 2020/21, Walker is in the 95th percentile for progressive carries per 90 averaging 8.52 – greater than James’ 6.74 and Trippier’s 3.53. Although having the engine and pace to make multiple bursts up and down the flank is often paramount for any modern full-back, some hone their skill set in different ways and where Trippier’s crossing is beneficial, so is Walker’s ability to get England up the field.
For club, Kyle Walker is part of a Man City side that are masters of possession-based football, an advanced version of the tiki-taka style that was first established in Pep’s Barcelona side of 2008/09. To play under Guardiola, first and foremost, you must be a good footballer to execute what is expected from a relentlessly detailed manager.
Despite coming under question at first, Walker is most definitely a supremely accomplished footballer and it is no surprise to see the stats reinforce that claim. England, too, have a philosophy of building their attacks from the goalkeeper, so Walker being in the 98th percentile for passes attempted per 90 with 84.64 shows he is more than capable with the ball at his feet. Interestingly, another City full-back Oleksandr Zinchenko ranks the highest for passes attempted per 90 in Europe’s top five leagues with 95.03.
England found success against the European powerhouses by launching counterattacks, utilising the pace of Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling to great effect. But being the favourites in the group, England will expect to be the aggressors in possession and the ones dictating proceedings. Walker leads the way for passes attempted and pass completion, ahead of James and Trippier, but the Manchester City defender falls short for pressures per 90.
Sustaining attacks will be key to continue applying pressure and Walker’s defensive stats are perhaps an unfair reflection of his abilities to defend, considering the dominance of Guardiola’s men. Despite this, Walker has often felt the wrath of criticism aimed at his sometimes lackadaisical defending in big games, conceding an unneeded penalty against Liverpool in November with a foul on Sadio Mané.
He came under scrutiny from Roy Keane in the post-match analysis – but who hasn’t – after costing his side two points, with Keane questioning his decision in making the challenge and calling him an ‘idiot’ in the process. It’s this rash decision-making in crucial moments of matches that can curtail a tournament and although a blip such as the one mentioned is rare, perhaps it’s a reminder that there is a higher probability of Walker making a mistake than James and Trippier, but this wouldn’t ever enter Southgate’s mind when choosing his side.
With Walker the subject of some questionable defending and Trippier lacking the extra yard of pace to prevent an onslaught of danger, it is evident that James is the greater all-around defender of the three. James has accumulated many of Europe’s elite in his back pocket domestically and in Chelsea’s route to the Champions League final, dominating the field with assured performances beyond his years.
These experiences have held the Chelsea man in high regard heading into the tournament, but it remains to be seen whether he is rewarded with the starting berth in England’s first group game against Croatia on Sunday 13 June.
The potential to move to a three at the back system is looking more likely after Ben White was called up in place of Alexander-Arnold, getting the nod over the likes of James Ward-Prowse and Jesse Lingard. If England do switch to a 3-4-3 system – the one that saw them march through the 2018 World Cup relatively unscathed until the semi-finals – then Walker is a definite option for the right-sided centre back role, leaving James and Trippier to battle it out for the right wing-back role.
Although Trippier was a regular fixture in that role in the last major tournament, Reece James is a perfect fit for the role, with Trippier being introduced to impact proceedings later on. Remaining with the four at the back system would provide Southgate with an even deeper selection headache, but his likening towards Walker could sway his decision into choosing the Manchester City full-back.
England’s struggles with breaking down low blocks mean there could be an overreliance on set pieces and that is crying out for Kieran Trippier to take centre stage, although it is likely he will be introduced off the bench when the game is unsettled. Reece James is the strongest candidate for the starting berth, especially in a five at the back system, with the Chelsea man already accustomed to playing in a similar role under Thomas Tuchel.
After considering every factor, including the Harry Maguire injury, here is how I expect England to line up against Croatia: (3-4-3) Jordan Pickford, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Ben White, Reece James, Declan Rice, Mason Mount, Luke Shaw, Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane
By: Tom Griffin
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Matthew Ashton – AMA / Michael Regan – The FA / Soccrates Images – Getty Images
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