Talking Tactics: England boss Southgate faces defensive dilemma
England could have a new-look defence when they face Italy in tonight's Euro 2024 qualifier.
During last year's World Cup, Gareth Southgate opted for a back four comprising of Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw for the quarter-final defeat by France.
Yet there is now the option of playing Chelsea duo Reece James and Ben Chilwell, who were both injured for the tournament. Crystal Palace centre-back Marc Guehi has also been recalled while Tottenham's Eric Dier kept his place.
Ahead of the Three Lions' visit to the European champions, we look at the defensive options available to Southgate and what the future holds for his backline.
For much of Southgate’s reign, he has used three central defenders. That was the defensive setup when England faced Italy in the Euro 2020 final.
Walker played on the right of the back three alongside Maguire and Stones, with Kieran Trippier and Shaw used as wing-backs.
Southgate was still using this formation when England drew 3-3 at home to Germany last September, but he switched to a back four at the World Cup.
The team kept clean sheets in three of their five games and more crucially were able to field an extra central midfielder, making the team a more potent attacking force.
It would be a surprise if the 52-year-old did not stick with a back four, with so many attacking options available further forward. Now the question is which players will be selected to make it work.
With the Euro 2024 qualification campaign starting with what should be England’s toughest game, the naturally pragmatic Southgate is expected to play it safe.
That would mean selecting the exact same back four that were fielded in the final World Cup game. Walker would provide the pace to protect the centre-backs, with Shaw given more license to get forward.
Sunday's home fixture against Ukraine would seem a safer game in which to experiment, though with it still being an important match, we should not expect any real surprises.
James would give the defence more attacking thrust and balance than Walker. Barring injuries, Stones, Maguire and Shaw would all be expected to start alongside the Chelsea right-back.
Yet though Southgate must concentrate on results right now, he must also balance that responsibility with looking to the future of the Three Lions' defence.
Walker will be 34 when Euro 2024 comes around. Trippier will be 33, Maguire 31 and Stones 30.
Southgate must surely be looking towards James to take over the right-back position. There is also scope for the likes of Trent-Alexander Arnold and Kyle Walker-Peters to become the back up.
England are better positioned at left-back, where the return of Chilwell to the squad gives the manager two quality options who are both still in their mid-20s.
Central defence remains the biggest issue in this team. Southgate fielded three centre-backs for so long, precisely because he did not trust his options.
Walker has been needed in the team to make up for the lack of pace in the middle. Stones and Maguire have been the bedrock of the modern England side, but that might have to change.
Stones is still performing at a high level for Manchester City but Maguire is more of a concern. He has lost his place at Manchester United and desperately needs a summer move to get first-team football.
Southgate was under pressure to drop the 30-year-old before the World Cup. His loyalty was rewarded with some fine performances.
Even so, it makes sense to plan for a future without at least one of this pairing. This is especially true considering that 29-year-old Dier remains in the squad, despite having recent struggles at Spurs.
Guehi’s presence is a positive, but others must be given a chance. Fikayo Tomori and Max Kilman seem more natural choices these days than Dier, who is better suited to a back three.
The absence of Ben White has also been questioned. He has been used as a right-back this season by Arsenal, which complicates matters, as does his withdrawal from the squad during the World Cup.
This is not the right time for Southgate to experiment with his defensive options, but when easier fixtures present themselves, he must take the chance to make changes.