Southgate's left-back gamble and why Shaw's return is crucial


England’s turgid displays at Euro 2024 have been criticised but there is one area in which they are excelling. Defensively, they have given very little away, conceding only once in three games and allowing fewer expected goals against than any other side.

Kieran Trippier has played his part in their stinginess, defending well, for the most part, as a makeshift left-back. The problem, both for him and the team more broadly, is that any positives, defensively, have been outweighed by glaring issues in possession.

But the Newcastle defender is now a doubt for Sunday’s match. If he doesn’t manage to prove his fitness, it is thought Gareth Southgate will turn to Ezri Konsa as a makeshift left back, ahead of Liverpool’s versatile defender Joe Gomez.

Trippier, a right-footer naturally inclined to look inside from the left-back position and unable to offer a genuine threat on the overlap, encapsulates those issues. It is why news of Luke Shaw’s availability against Slovakia, even if only as a substitute, comes as such a boost.

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It remains unclear whether Luke Shaw will play a meaningful part in Euro 2024, according to Sky Sports News senior reporter Luke Shaw

His absence with a hamstring injury has proved a major headache for Gareth Southgate, who has had to delay his return to the fold despite initial hopes he might recover in time to feature during the group stage. Without a natural alternative in the left-back position – more on that later – the side’s attack has been stymied.

The impact is clear when comparing England’s attacking locations at the tournament so far to those at the 2022 World Cup, when Shaw started all five games. In his absence in Germany, the side’s attacks down the left flank have become fewer and less effective.

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It is no coincidence that their only goals so far, scored by Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane and set up by Bukayo Saka and Kyle Walker respectively, have come from the right.

The lack of balance on the left has been striking.

With Trippier coming inside onto his right foot and Phil Foden also drifting infield ahead of him, England have badly lacked width on that flank. They are not stretching opponents as a result, their narrowness in turn making them easier to defend against.

Comparing England’s average positions at the last two tournaments provides further evidence of Trippier and Shaw’s roles in all of this.

In Qatar, Shaw, a player at his best when marauding forward on the overlap, was one of six England players operating mostly in the opposition half. In Germany, the numbers have been flipped, with Trippier playing significantly deeper, as one of six players in England’s half.

England's average positions show the difference between Luke Shaw and Kieran Trippier

It is not just a question of positioning, of course. Shaw gets into far more dangerous attacking areas than Trippier as a left-back, yes. But crucially he is also capable of capitalising.

In total, he has produced nine assists in 31 appearances for the national team in addition to scoring three goals. When available, he is in fact frequently their most effective creative outlet.

That was certainly true at the World Cup in Qatar, where Shaw created more scoring chances than any other England player and was unfortunate not to register more than one assist.

In addition to creating more opportunities than Trippier has managed at Euro 2024, Shaw averaged considerably more touches and passes and made nearly three times as many crosses. Trippier is yet to even have a touch in the opposition box in Germany.

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His attacking travails put the spotlight on the lack of a natural alternative. Southgate must rue the injury to Ben Chilwell which ruled the Chelsea left-back out of contention. Privately, though, he will surely accept his own role in how that injury came about.

Chilwell, having already missed a chunk of the first half of the season with a hamstring problem, had only been fit enough to start once in the previous month for Chelsea when he was asked to start two England friendlies, against Brazil in Belgium, in the space of four days during the March international break.

Southgate acknowledged the risk at the time. “We have to manage him carefully because he’s been out for a while,” he said after Chilwell played 67 of the 1-0 loss to Brazil.

But he followed it up by giving him the full 90 in the 2-2 draw with Belgium, after which Chilwell reported the knee problem which effectively ended his season, ruling him out of the Euros.

Ben Chilwell started both of England's friendlies in March
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Ben Chilwell started both of England’s friendlies in March

At that point, Southgate decided against picking another natural left-back, such as Crystal Palace’s Tyrick Mitchell, in his 26-man squad, instead resolving to muddle through with two right footers in Trippier and Joe Gomez until Shaw’s return to fitness.

The problem, of course, is that neither player is able to do the things Shaw can do in the position. It has not been an issue defensively. The change might even have helped in that sense. But what is certain is that England have lost far more than they have gained.

What now? Until Shaw is deemed able to start, it might help to use Anthony Gordon, a left winger more inclined to hold the width than Foden, ahead of Trippier. Saka has been mooted as a left-footed option to replace the Newcastle defender.

Ultimately, though, England’s chances of going deep at the tournament are likely to hinge on the availability of their only natural left-back for what lies ahead.

After three group games on the sidelines, an appearance of any kind against Slovakia would provide a much-needed boost.



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