When Kyle Walker limped off against Manchester United, Gareth Southgate would have been seriously concerned. Now Manchester City have confirmed that the Englishman has undergone surgery on his groin and Pep Guardiola doesn’t know if he will be fit to the World Cup, that concern will have grown into a sense of disquietude.
It’s a run-up to a major tournament that we have never seen before. And as such, the England manager will be watching every match involving his players, hoping they make it through unscathed. This time around, there is no buffer for recovery. England kick-off their campaign against Iran just over a week after the final whistle blows at Fulham vs Manchester United.
With 45 days to go now before Qatar’s curtain raiser, any mid-term injury could spell disaster for England. Southgate will have almost finalised his 26-man squad across the last international break and any disruption to that will alter his plans. But if he could pick any defender to lose then Kyle Walker would arguably be last on his list.
The 32-year-old has been utterly integral to England over the last two tournaments. He has been the key link between a back three and a back four and has consistently bailed the Three Lions out with his pace. The issue Southgate now has, if Walker is to miss the tournament, is that he is completely unique in this England squad. There is no like for like replacement for Walker, unlike in several other positions in the team.
England seriously lack pace at centre-back. The trusted front-runners to start, Eric Dier, Harry Maguire and John Stones are all lacking in the speed department and while Ben White, Fikayo Tomori and Marc Guehi are quicker, they aren’t on Walker’s level in terms of recovery runs.
He has always been Southgate's insurance. Maguire and Stones have been incredibly solid, but when they have been caught out, it has been Walker that has saved them. When Thomas Muller ran through for Germany at Euro 2020, it was Walker that hunted him down and applied the pressure that contributed to his crucial miss. Without him, England may be forced into playing an even deeper line.
Reece James has shone at right wing-back in recent months for club and country, but one solution could be to move him to the Walker role. That would free up the right wing-back slot for either Kieran Trippier or the much-discussed Trent Alexander-Arnold. But it doesn’t feel right to dump that level of responsibility onto James when he is earnt his right to start in his more favoured position.
A back four provides another solution for the group stages, but England have proved time and time again they play far better against the big nations in a back five and will need time to gel the new-look defence.
The main issue Southgate now has is the lack of certainty on Walker. In some ways it would be simpler if Walker was 100% ruled out of the tournament. Then his planning could begin on a solution. But if the Manchester City man is likely to be fit by the time we reach the knockout stages, should he be included in the squad? How much gametime does he need to get up to speed to the point where he can start in a major tournament?
England have to take Walker if he is fit, it is as simple as that. But including him alongside a Manchester United duo of Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw that are lacking gametime if he has missed games is a serious worry. This injury could see England go without their most important defender for a major tournament, which gives Southgate a headache he really doesn’t need right now.
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