It was Steven Gerrard this week who summed up a question occupying the minds of many who follow England’s national team. “I think the big challenge for England is whether we can find the right personnel and find the right partnerships in defence,” said the former England captain.
Since Gareth Southgate’s men secured their place at their seventh successive FIFA World Cup, the form and fitness of Southgate’s favoured lieutenants in the backline has become a matter of concern.
England conceded just three goals in qualifying. By contrast, in their current six-match winless run – their worst sequence since 1993 – they have kept just one clean sheet. Harry Maguire is a particular cause for concern. Named in UEFA’s Team of the Tournament at EURO 2020, he has lost his place in Manchester United’s starting XI and made errors before two of Germany’s goals in September’s 3-3 Wembley draw.
Maguire has been one of three defensive mainstays in England’s major tournaments under Southgate: he, John Stones and Kyle Walker featured in every game that mattered at Russia 2018. At EURO 2020, Southgate included him in his squad despite an ankle problem, and Maguire rewarded that faith by playing alongside Stones and Walker in five consecutive matches as England finished runners-up.
Yet Matthew Upson, the former England centre-back, sees a dilemma now for the manager between “players who can be relied upon” and “whoever is in form”. Speaking to FIFA+, he elaborates: “Those performances that Harry Maguire put in in Russia are four years ago and a lot has happened since then.
“A midfield player can get caught on the ball and there are still two layers to go through. But with a centre-back or goalkeeper those errors through not being sharp or confident enough are more glaring. There’s bigger pressure when you’re not in good form.”
Of the squad’s other possible central defenders, Southgate said on the eve of the Iran fixture that Walker was unlikely to be risked for this first fixture even if the Manchester City man has been progressing well in his recovery after groin surgery (with Stones, incidentally, filling his full-back berth for their club). Upson sees other options for Southgate, starting with Eric Dier – a key figure in Russia but left out of the EURO – who featured in both of September’s UEFA Nations League games.
“I look at the last few games and Dier has been one of the most consistent performers in terms of how well he uses the ball,” says Upson, a member of England’s back line at South Africa 2020, who is here in Qatar as an analyst for BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Sounds. “If he [Southgate] uses a three Dier is comfortable playing in the middle of that three.”
Southgate, when announcing his squad, said he had gone for “more experienced defenders”. Yet Upson likes the look of Arsenal’s Ben White as a potential alternative as the right-sided centre-back, citing the “versatility and mobility” he would bring in Walker’s absence. “He is playing in a team top of the Premier League and doing well and is quick across the ground.” (On the flipside he has only four caps and just one England appearance in a back three.)
Whether Southgate does stick with a three – as in both September fixtures – is a moot point too. In Russia, England succeeded with a 3-5-2 structure. At the EURO, he took a more flexible approach starting with a 4-3-3 but switching to a three against Germany in the round of 16 and Italy in the final (when Luke Shaw, the left wing-back, scored a goal set up by a cross from Kieran Trippier, his counterpart on the right).
Speaking to the media in September, Southgate said that “the defenders that are playing well are playing in back threes” yet some good judges anticipate that against Iran, England will revert to a 4-3-3 with Southgate putting his faith in Stones and Maguire as his centre-back pairing.
The thinking goes that, with Iran sitting deep, 4-3-3 is a more adventurous formation.
However, Upson offers a different viewpoint. “A lot of people think you can’t play a back three against Iran but it can be very positive, especially if you have a midfield player like Declan Rice who is very able to drop into the centre-back area, wide areas. He is very instinctively good at reading those positions so you can afford to push high up the pitch and play wing-backs who are very attacking.”
With the attacking thrust of Jude Bellingham alongside Rice, the middle of the field is a source of optimism, as Gerrard also vouched. It is the defence which holds the doubts as England seek a winning start for the third tournament running under Southgate.