Why Southgate’s selection of multiple right backs could be a blessing and a curse.

England boss, Gareth Southgate, announced his selection of four right backs in his 26 man squad. This figure could be reduced by Alexander-Arnold’s recent injury; however, Southgate also stated in one of his press conferences that he would have taken 5 right backs if he could. This was the fuel to the fire of an ongoing debate as to whether it is actually necessary or correct to select so many players to one position. Some say that these full backs deserve their selections; for example, 3 out of the 4 of the selected full backs won a major trophy either domestically or on the continent. I will discuss both the positives and negatives of picking 4 right backs for this England squad.

Why was Southgate correct with his selection?

The obvious reason for this is that all of the players chosen have their own individual talents or skills which could be argued to be some of the best in the world. Walker can play multiple positions to a competent or high level of proficiency. Pep Guardiola has commonly used him as a wide centre back in a back three but also as a full back. This is due to his amazing recovery pace and impressive passing ability. This would be massively beneficial for England and therefore makes sense to select Walker for the team. A similar story goes for Reece James as he is also flexible as shown at times under Tuchel where he played centre back in the FA Cup final where he was a centre back against Vardy’s pace. These two players will be massively important for England in international tournaments which do tend to be quite scrappy and most goals come from transitions like counter attacks to a fast striker or winger, meaning their pace will be very important.

Reece James in action for UCL Champions, Chelsea – https://twitter.com/iF2is/status/1394755751629950986/photo/1

The more divisive part of this discussion comes when considering the roles of Tripper and Alexander- Arnold. Trent’s recent injury against Austria will sideline him for the tournament however, the idea behind his selection can still be discussed for future tournaments or general themes of the national team. This is due to England playing in a way that could potentially actually minimise these full back’s effectiveness. In previous games, Trent has been much less of a threat than he is usually for Liverpool. This could be down to factors like lacking a progressive passing centre back like Van Dijk or it could be due to England not tending to use inside forwards in the past (unlike Liverpool) as players like Sterling or Sancho will tend to hold their position wide which gives Trent less space and is more likely to be marked. Let’s compare his heatmaps for Liverpool and England to show his reduced impact higher up the pitch:

For Liverpool (vs Manchester United):

For England (vs Denmark):

Some would say that this is making Trent less effective due to getting less value from his impressive crossing abilities. However, I’m sure if Trent was fit he would be vital in widening the pitch in order to try and open up low blocks. Trippier has had an amazing season with Atletico Madrid and has won La Liga. Clearly, it is difficult to argue that he shouldn’t be picked as he has succeeded at the top level. He is also very versatile as he is also a very capable left back. This means that in picking Trippier, Southgate hasn’t only picked a very good right back but also a good left back too. This hitting two birds with one stone idea could be massively beneficial in a congested tournament after an already busy season where injuries could be likely and this cover is necessary. However, some will say other full backs could be more effective as he is rarely bound to be better than someone like Shaw could be in certain games so his versatility could be less useful than it seems.

Has Southgate gone overboard with the cover in this position however?

This point is interesting as most people would argue you do not need four players who can play in the same position while simultaneously only naming 5 midfielders. Some would say this over indulgence in the talent pool of this position was unnecessary especially now after Trent’s injury as one of these picks could be used for somebody like Lingard who has had an exceptional season at West Ham. As previously discussed, attacking full backs like Alexander-Arnold can be argued to be less effective in Southgate’s system which tends to prioritse slow, careful progression of the ball. This means that the extra selections could be useless in certain games as they are not fully effective therefore providing a level of weakness to the team through issues like defensive deficiencies. 

Similarly, our full backs like Reece James and Kyle Walker can seemingly do similar things to varying levels of proficiency but this means that we are overloaded with talent in one area which could force rotation, potentially unsettling a team’s system as each individual player will adjust how they play according to the system. For example, Walker is more likely to stay deeper in early possession stages while Reece James has a tendency to sit wide in the middle of the park, offering a potential escape from a high press. This then forces a reaction from our front three as if walker is deeper it could force Kane to go deeper as there is no easy escape while he could stay higher if Reece James was also higher, This can be argued to have differing effects however there would definitely be a knock-on effect on the higher areas of the pitch.

Therefore, Southgate’s selection of 6 total full backs could be viewed by some to be unnecessary especially also considering our varying attacking choices too which vary in how they will affect certain full backs playing styles as previously mentioned with the Sterling and Trent example.

Well, was Southgate correct in picking this many full backs? The boring answer is we don’t know yet as we haven’t seen this team play enough in a congested time period. However, the common answer is that this selection is far too many as people do not think that the system can facilitate these varying players or if it is even necessary as it is unlikely for England to get so many injuries where having four right-backs will be useful. Potentially Trent’s injury subsides these worries however we will have to see whether England will benefit from this incredible depth or whether they will suffer in vital areas like the midfield.

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