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Thursday, October 6, 2022

Southgate struggling to make case for England defence in time for Qatar | Nations League

For an illustration of the problems that Gareth Southgate has faced for this end-of-season Nations League programme, why he feared a slap in the face, which duly arrived against Hungary on Saturday night, it is necessary to start at the back.

The England manager named a squad for the four ties that contained 11 defenders, six of them specialist centre-halves, with the versatile Kyle Walker considered a seventh in a back three. More than enough, surely?

Southgate lost one of them straight away – Ben White withdrawing through injury – while it emerged that Fikayo Tomori and Marc Guéhi would not be fit enough to start in Budapest or the second game, which is against Germany in Munich on Tuesday night.

On to the remaining four options. John Stones came back from injury for Manchester City on the final day of the Premier League season on 22 May and he was not 100% for Hungary, while Harry Maguire – who has struggled desperately for form – returned to the Manchester United starting XI on the same day after a lay-off.

Walker last played for City on 4 May because of injury, although he was an unused substitute for them on the final day, which leaves Conor Coady alone among the central defenders to have finished the club season properly.

Southgate did not want to start Stones in Budapest, perhaps with an eye on Germany, and nor – understandably – did he want to play Maguire and Coady as a central defensive pair for fear of their lack of pace being exposed. And so he went with them plus Walker in a three. It was pretty much his only option, even if did not feel ideal.

“We knew with the centre-backs to try to navigate these first couple of games while Fik and Marc are out, we probably needed to use Kyle Walker as a centre-back,” Southgate said.

Meanwhile, the hole at left-back burns. Ben Chilwell is not fit, having returned from a six-month knee ligament lay-off on the final day for Chelsea as an 89th-minute substitute, and Luke Shaw is injured, too. Kieran Trippier, who can provide an option on the left, made his first start for Newcastle after a three-month injury absence on the final day.

Southgate gave a debut to James Justin at left wing-back – a full-back who can play on both sides – and on the right he preferred Trent Alexander-Arnold to Reece James. Because in among all the mix and matching, and the need to manage players’ minutes, Southgate wanted to experiment a little and look further at other things.

Harry Maguire
Harry Maguire has struggled for form and fitness. Photograph: Lee Smith/Action Images/Reuters

Hence Bukayo Saka at left wing-back in the second half; he came on for Justin and had a few nice moments. Hence Jude Bellingham as one of a midfield two in the 3-4-3 system, which had mixed results. Hence Jarrod Bowen on the right of the attack for his debut; he was energetic and direct, although his finishing was off.

Southgate says that he wants to go far in the Nations League but the fledgling competition provides the only matches he has before the World Cup gets under way in Qatar on 21 November. After the Germany tie, it is Italy on Saturday and Hungary the following Tuesday (both at Molineux). Then there are the return fixtures with Italy and Germany on 23 and 26 September. That is it. If it is to be a choice between necessary fine-tuning for the World Cup and advancing in the Nations League, there is no choice.

Alexander-Arnold and Justin struggled defensively in Budapest, the former downcast when he was substituted just after the hour. England left spaces behind both players – into which Hungary countered – and they laboured to create the platform for control.

Bellingham and Declan Rice were a long way behind the front three and it was all frustratingly disjointed, England largely passive until Dominik Szoboszlai scored what proved to be the game’s only goal from the penalty spot in the 66th minute. Southgate’s team were more urgent thereafter and, on another day, they might have equalised. Then again, Hungary should have had a second goal on 81 minutes when András Schäfer blazed high.

“I knew going into this block of four games that you run the risk of some results that might hurt,” Southgate said. “But I have got to look at the bigger picture and ignore the inevitable that comes with the defeats and take what I will learn from it going into Qatar. We have not got friendlies to try it so we have to do it in these types of games.

“We do not have a 38-game league where you are working with the players all of the time, so if I don’t try some of them in these sorts of games we either flog the team which has been more consistent and we know all about and they fade at the end of these four games anyway. Or we try to balance it by putting some players in with some others with experience.”

After a run of 18 wins in 22 matches and only one defeat – against Italy on penalties in the Euro 2020 final – this was a reality check, even if Southgate is hardly blind to his reality. The timing of these fixtures and the volume of them feels strange and Southgate made the point that, previously, England had played only twice in almost seven months – the friendlies against Switzerland and Ivory Coast in March. Continuity is not a friend to any international manager.

Southgate also lamented having “played a couple a bit longer than we had hoped” and in extremely hot conditions – a reference, presumably, to Rice and Harry Kane being put through the 90 minutes. “So that is not perfect,” he said. The right balance was elusive. Southgate has plenty to solve before Germany.

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