With his 26 man squad finally named for Euro 2020, Gareth Southgate will now turn his attention to finalising his preferred starting eleven ahead of England’s opener with Croatia in just over a week’s time. Austria are tonight’s opponents and although the young attacking talents will be hoping to make an impression, what happens at the other end of the field is far more important.
After Harry Kane, Harry Maguire is England’s most important player. His aerial dominance and ability to bring the ball forward allows Gareth Southgate to play a back four rather than a back three. If he was fully fit, it would be a surefire thing that he would partner John Stones at the heart of England’s defence. However, he is some way off full fitness having missed the Europa League final and is in a race to be fit for England’s curtain raiser against Croatia.
Given he is a risk for the opening game, that will force Southgate to play a back three, which explains the decision to include four right-backs in his squad. Kyle Walker is likely to be utilised as a right-sided centre back at Euro 2020 as he was in the 2018 World Cup, which would allow Reece James, Kieran Trippier or Trent Alexander-Arnold to move into the more advanced right wing-back role.
Tonight will give us the first indication of Southgate’s thoughts, as he has hinted that James could play as a centre-back and Alexander-Arnold could potentially play in midfield, although that seems unlikely at this stage. Walker could line up alongside John Stones in the centre as they did three years ago, with Tyrone Mings likely to take the left-centre back slot left vacant by Maguire.
Of course, Luke Shaw is in pole position to start at left wing-back but as he has shown for Manchester United this season, he can also slot in as a left centre-back. Southgate is less likely to go for that option, with Conor Coady used to playing in a three at Wolves. The England manager's other choices are to use these two warm-up games to either test Maguire’s fitness, or see which player could replace him in a back four.
As Nuno Espirito Santo switched between a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-4-3, Coady does have experience in a four, although Wolves have been far from convincing this season. Mings is in pole position to benefit if Maguire is absent as the only left-footed centre-back in the squad, while his physical frame also matches the profile of the Manchester United captain, and he has played in a back four for the entirety of the season. Having said that, this would be a huge test of his capabilities in a season when many fancied teammate Ezri Konsa to leapfrog him in the England pecking order.
All four right-backs are incredibly unlikely to play in the centre of a back four which makes the decision to not take Ben Godfrey a risky one. The decisions so far point towards a back three for England, which will see one of their talented attacking players miss out on a place in the starting eleven, until Maguire is fit enough to take his place in the heart of their defence.
He is so crucial to this England side that without him, the entire shape may have to change. A defensive shape is in a tough test against Croatia, but Southgate will be hoping he can rely on the Manchester United man by the time the Scotland game rolls around.
England fans will get to watch their side in person for the first time in over a year at Middlesbrough’s Riverside tonight, but England’s defensive shape may provide a tactical clue to how Southgate sees the EURO 2020 campaign unfolding.