Euro 2020 seemed destined to be the tournament of the full-back for England. Gareth Southgate started off by picking six of them, including four right-backs. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s injury-enforced withdrawal meant the full-back contingent was reduced to a mere five.
Southgate then sprang a surprise by overlooking his specialist left-backs to pick Kieran Trippier out of position against Croatia. He pioneered full-back rotation by switching both for the second match against Scotland. It leaves Ben Chilwell the odd man out in a tournament where so far, England have had more full-backs than shots on target. The game of musical chairs may yet continue against the Czech Republic, though without the self-isolating Chilwell. If it reflects the rare riches England enjoy – two Champions League winners, a Champions League finalist, a La Liga winner and Manchester United’s Players’ Player of the Year, even without Alexander-Arnold, arguably the world’s finest right-back – the defining full-backs of the tournament have not been Southgate’s players.
Arguably the outstanding individual performance of the first two rounds of fixtures came from Germany’s Robin Gosens, albeit as a wing-back. The tormentor of Portugal scored one goal, had another disallowed and set up two more. His right-sided counterpart, Joshua Kimmich, was almost as influential. Holland’s flying right wing-back Denzel Dumfries is another illustration that nominal defenders can be devastating in attack.
Meanwhile, Italy’s one-man left flank Leonardo Spinazzola has made a formation work; he is a personification of the way the role of the full-back has evolved and their tactical importance has increased as, time and again, they are found in more advanced positions than the midfielders. The tournament has provided other proof: Hungary’s surprise lead against France came courtesy of Attila Fiola and his burst into the penalty box. Wales were supposed to be defending a 1-0 lead when Connor Roberts’ sense of adventure got the better of him and he turned up in the Turkey penalty area to score a 95th-minute goal.
Then there are the England full-backs. In theory, they have one of the finest collections of attack-minded players in the positions. In practice, they have been strangers to the final third. Scotland have had a diet of crosses from their captain but Andy Robertson has put in more than the England quartet (plus the unused Chilwell) combined.
There was some logic to their safety-first positioning against Croatia. England can testify to the threat of Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic; the latter proved their nemesis in the 2018 World Cup semi-final and, since Mario Mandzukic’s international career ended, it feels ever more apparent that if the wingers are stopped, then so are Croatia.
But Scotland lined up without wingers; well as the wing-backs Robertson and Stephen O’Donnell played, they started in deeper positions. The sight of Shaw and Reece James on the teamsheet prompted the thought that they would be more offensive. Whether by design or circumstances, they were more circumspect. Neither quite resembled the player seen at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge.
It was worth recalling Southgate’s words on ITV last week. “First and foremost, a full-back’s job is to defend,” he said and a manager who has been progressive in many respects may have been harking back to another era; it may also be an illustration of why he had excluded Alexander-Arnold from his squad from the March matches.
Diego Simeone, Trippier’s manager at Atletico Madrid, may agree. But, albeit in a wing-back formation, James and Chilwell have raided forward so frequently for Chelsea in part because the central midfielders remain behind the ball. In Liverpool’s 4-3-3 shape, Alexander-Arnold has often gone past Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum, knowing they provided him with cover. England were overly cautious on Friday given that, in Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice, they had two players in effect operating as defensive midfielders.
Tuesday’s clash with the Czech Republic could represent a last chance to unleash the full-backs. The sense could be that Southgate will look for defensive solidity first against elite opponents and, if England top Group D, they are guaranteed France, Germany or Portugal in the last 16. Walker’s recovery pace makes him the best defensive right-back; perhaps Trippier’s conservatism in an unfamiliar position makes him the least ambitious left-back. Maybe, given England’s assortment of attacking talents, they only need the defenders to defend if the various forwards find their best form. But another possibility is that their run in Euro 2020 ends without their attacking full-backs ever really attacking.
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