Published on April 6, 2021Embed from Getty Images
After Gary Neville’s retirement from international football in 2007, England’s vacant right-back spot attracted few credible candidates. The 2010 World Cup, for example, saw Liverpool’s Glen Johnson as the only right-back selected by Fabio Capello amid a shortfall of talent in the position. Once again, the right-back spot looks to be a problem position for England ahead of this summer’s European Championships. But this time, manager Gareth Southgate faces the tough task of choosing which of England’s many right-backs should start the Three Lions’ first game against Croatia.
Unlike England’s left-back position, where Southgate is likely to pick either Ben Chilwell or Luke Shaw, choosing the occupant of the number two shirt will be far less straightforward. Eight of the Premier League’s 20 teams have an English right-back who has made more than 20 league appearances this season.
Remarkably, Southgate’s selection of viable right-backs goes beyond the top-flight. Max Aarons, first choice right-back for the England Under-21s, is on course for a second promotion from the Championship with Norwich City. Meanwhile Kieran Trippier, Southgate’s right wing-back of choice for the 2018 World Cup, has helped Atletico Madrid to the top of La Liga with 19 appearances.
The last international squad before any tournament is usually a reliable indicator as to which players will make the final cut. If Southgate’s 26-man squad for England’s March 2021 fixtures is anything to go by, the competition to be named England’s first-choice right-back has been reduced to three contenders, with one notable omission.
While Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and Reece James were all named in the squad for England’s three World Cup 2022 qualifiers, Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold was not. According to WhoScored.com, the 22-year-old, who had been named in every England squad since the 2018 World Cup, is ‘very strong’ at crossing and taking set-pieces but ‘weak’ at aerial duels and tackling. Considering this, Alexander-Arnold’s exclusion from England’s March squad hints at Southgate preferring a more pragmatic and defensively comfortable right-back going into the Euros.
In the press conference following the announcement of March’s squad, Southgate said: “It’s simply that we think Reece James and Kieran Trippier have had exceptional seasons with their clubs. Kyle Walker is in great form, too.”
Given that Walker, Trippier and James are the right-back contenders most likely to be named in Southgate’s final 23-man squad for the Euros, Overtime is crunching the numbers to work out who deserves to start England’s first game on June 13.
It remains unclear whether Southgate will choose to play a back four, with a two centre-backs and two full-backs, or a back five, with three centre-backs and two wing-backs. Regardless of which system is picked, the role of the full-back in the modern game is one of the most demanding positions on the pitch. Players are expected to contribute to attacks and then quickly transition into their defensive shape when the ball is lost.
Given the versatility required of England’s first-choice right-back, we are comparing each player’s offensive and defensive data to decide who would best suit a Southgate XI.
At the 2018 World Cup, where Southgate opted to play a 3-5-2 formation, Trippier was England’s go-to right wing-back and started six of the Three Lions’ seven games. With three centre-backs behind him for cover, Trippier had license to push high into England’s attacking third and provide service for strikers Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford.
If Southgate chooses to play wing-backs at the Euros, it is likely that Trippier will once again be given the nod. With six assists this season, Trippier has been far more creative than Walker (one assist) and James (one assist) despite playing fewer games.
In terms of England’s attacking style, the 2018 World Cup saw a reliance from Southgate’s side on set pieces. With the likes of Kane, Harry Maguire and John Stones in the side, Southgate will want quality balls into the box from wide areas for his aerial threats to attack. Both Trippier and James’ data is strong in this department, with an average of 1.2 crosses per game this season respectively. Walker’s showing of just 0.1 crosses per game this season may seem unusually low, but it is important to remember that the 30-year-old’s club side, Manchester City, have a possession-based philosophy under Pep Guardiola and prefer to ‘attack through the middle’, according to WhoScored.com.
Southgate, who managed the England Under 21s for three years before taking charge of the senior team in 2016, has not shied away from giving youth a chance during his time at the helm and James could become the latest beneficiary of this.
The 21-year-old has experience of the right wing-back role from his club duties with Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel and his creative data shows that he has outperformed Walker and Trippier for average key passes, dribbles and shots per game so far this season.
Southgate clearly thinks a lot of James and allowed the Chelsea man two appearances during the March international break, while right-back rival Trippier remained an unused substitute for all three games.
There is no doubt that James’ attacking data this season displays some encouraging signs, but his lack of experience in senior international football means his chances of going into the Euros as England’s first choice right-back are slim.
Although the role of the right-back has dramatically evolved since Southgate’s time playing for England in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the position still requires players to have a strong defensive awareness.
The defensive resolve of England’s first choice right-back is likely to be tested in the Three Lions’ opening game of the tournament against experienced Croatian winger Ivan Perisic. The powerful Inter Milan forward, who scored against England in the semi-final of the 2018 World Cup, will demand a strong defensive display from England’s right-back.
Trippier’s data makes a strong case for naming him as England’s most impressive defensive right-back. The 30-year-old outperforms his two competitors in terms of average tackles, clearances and interceptions per game this season. Trippier’s impressive defensive attributes are likely to have been developed by Atletico Madrid’s manager Diego Simeone, who is renowned for setting up his sides in a compact and defensively orientated manner.
If England are to progress beyond the group stage, clearly the side’s right-back will need to ready themself for a battle against some of the continent’s most talented left-wingers, such as Kylian Mbappe, Cristiano Ronaldo and Leroy Sane. Given that Walker has been dribbled past on average just 0.3 times per game this season, he would appear the most suitable of England’s right-back candidates in a one-against-one situation.
However, Walker is outperformed by Trippier and James in the tackles, clearances and aerial duels won categories respectively. Although Walker has the pace to match Europe’s quickest wingers in a duel, question marks remain over other aspects of his defensive game.
Southgate has the luxury of several established right-backs to choose from, depending on England’s formation and tactical set-up of the opposition.
In a 3-5-2 formation, there is no doubt that Trippier should be allowed to pick where he left off at the 2018 World Cup. Aged 30, and with 26 senior caps under his belt, he has all the experience needed to provide Southgate with a reliable right wing-back option.
England’s style under Southgate is to dominate possession and attack through the middle but against teams who sit deep, the midfield area can become overcrowded. Against such teams, Trippier’s exceptional set-piece and crossing ability is a useful plan B for England.
James’ promising attacking data point to him becoming a more serious contender for England’s right wing-back position in the future but considering that Southgate only has a few weeks each year to work with his players, a more experienced option is likely to be chosen for the Euros.
That experienced option is likely to be Walker if Southgate deploys a back four, as he did for England’s March fixtures. In an England team with a high concentration of young players in attacking positions, Southgate cannot afford for his full-backs to get naively caught high up the pitch as play transitions, leaving the defence exposed.
While Trippier and James may possess strengths in particular areas, Walker is the closest player England have to a complete right-back which is why he will likely get the nod to start in Southgate’s back four at the Euros.