Ben White's addition to England's defence highlights concerns about potential weakness

Gareth Southgate will, however, be picking from a position of strength in most other positions for Euro 2020

James Ward-Prowse’s series of threatening set-pieces against Romania on Sunday were in vain. Much of England’s attacking threat in the 2018 World Cup stemmed from dead-ball situations but the final spot in their Euro 2020 squad was filled by Ben White. It may be less a case of merit than necessity.

Gareth Southgate rectified an imbalance in his initial party. When Uefa enlarged squads, it afforded the chance to cover for injuries. That only three of the 26 he had called up were fit specialist centre-backs seemed to leave England short-staffed and reliant on Harry Maguire returning soon.

As it has become apparent that the Manchester United captain may only have a bit-part role in the group stages, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s withdrawal created an opportunity.

White’s swift progress – he has played in League Two, League One, the Championship and the Premier League in four successive seasons – can be traced back to Marcelo Bielsa and a transformative loan at Leeds. His assurance in possession for Graham Potter’s Brighton marked him out as a very modern centre-back.

But circumstances have created a situation where he might leapfrog into the team. Southgate had seemed to opt for good tourists as his reserve centre-backs, to the detriment of men who might be better defenders.

Now the increasingly error-prone Tyrone Mings’ shaky display against Romania may have made Southgate’s mind up. That Conor Coady has played the vast majority of his career as a central defender in a trio made him an odd selection when Southgate reverted to a back four; others are far more experienced and accomplished in the system.

There is a theory that, after five games with a back four, England will switch system for Sunday’s clash with Croatia, looking to compensate for Maguire’s absence with a policy of safety in numbers. It may benefit White – the vacancy would be on the left, where he is better equipped than Coady to operate – but it underlines how inadequate England’s preparations have been.

Much of that is no fault of their own. A window for preparation was closed by Premier League clubs’ prowess and progress in Europe. The seven Chelsea and Manchester City players featured in neither of the friendlies against Austria and Romania. Only one of the three United representatives took the field. Jordan Henderson and Jadon Sancho both missed a match.

Rather than fine-tuning a team and resolving selection dilemmas, England may have created more. Jack Grealish feels the big winner of the warm-up games and not merely because, after his own injury, he looks fully fit again. A charismatic ball-carrier revelled in a central role; a team could be built around him.

The problem is the welcome sort. England are overloaded with enviable talents. If they want an axis of Henderson (or even Jude Bellingham) and Declan Rice in a 4-2-3-1 formation or to play 3-4-3, they cannot fit in all of Mason Mount, Phil Foden and Grealish.

The Austria game illustrated that when Harry Kane drops deep, they need at least one quick winger to stretch play and dash in behind defences. It was a prolific formula in 2019 when they had two, whether Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling or Sancho. Now they seem to be competing for one place. Perhaps Sterling’s vibrant displays in the March World Cup qualifiers make him the man in possession, but it is hard to be certain.

Because, with a few days to go before their campaign kicks off, the shape is a subject for debate and perhaps only Kane, Rice, John Stones and Jordan Pickford feel guaranteed to start. Southgate may be picking from a position of strength in most other positions. In defence, though, the addition of White highlights concerns about a potential weakness.

Published: June 7, 2021 03:58 PM

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