At least now we know what all those right backs were for. It is neither easy nor fair to be critical of Gareth Southgate following England’s sweaty, angsty win against Croatia yesterday afternoon.
It was ultimately an afternoon of vindication and justification as Raheem Sterling got the goal, they were patient and composed in difficult conditions and kept a clean sheet against their trickiest group opponents. Yet a couple of questions remain going into Friday’s game with Scotland, chiefly around the decision to shift Kieran Trippier across to left back instead of selecting one of the two players who specialise in that position.
What must have been going through the minds of Luke Shaw and, more so seeing as he was not even on the bench, Ben Chilwell when they learnt that the Atletico Madrid right back would be in their spot?
Unlucky lads but we need everyone. Your turn will come. Squad game, remember. Keep your heads up.
Still, this was not exactly a vote of confidence.
Southgate was not asked about the decision afterwards, the emphasis on the positives from a gritty victory that already places one foot in the round of 16, but his actions before a ball was kicked had said enough.
How England proceed will be curious. Southgate has relied on Trippier since early in his tenure and the former Spurs man has been nothing but dependable when used on the right.
Both Chilwell and Shaw have arrived at this tournament off the back of fine club seasons, the former’s performance in the Champions League final giving him a pre-tournament edge in the views of some observers.
Except having Shaw on the bench yesterday means a clear hierarchy has been established for this tournament and the path towards action for Chilwell suddenly seems blocked off.
Before kick off Southgate spoke about the difficulty of leaving him and Borussia Dortmund winger Jadon Sancho out of the matchday squad. “With the two boys that are out of the squad, it’s just unfortunate we can only name 23 and we’ve had to cover certain positions,” he told the BBC before the game. “I don’t like the fact we’re having to leave players out of the squad in a major tournament.”
But the hints of a curveball had been there. When announcing his provisional squad last month, the manager made it abundantly clear that he simply saw the four right backs in the squad as four good footballers, capable of playing in a number of positions.
Another factor, equally applicable to Kyle Walker’s performance on the opposite side of the back four, was that the quartet remained flat for much of the afternoon. This was not a day for full backs pushing forward. The shape was maintained throughout, the discipline a significant contributory factor in the result. Trippier had more touches (84) than anyone but the vast majority were near the halfway line.
Chilwell and Shaw are both renowned for their attacking abilities, bombing forward for Chelsea and Manchester United and, in the former’s case, chipping in with regular goals. Trippier, however, remains the more assured defender.
Experience was an additional factor. England’s squad is the second youngest at the tournament and Trippier is the elder statesman.
With Harry Maguire absent through injury, it was eminently sensible to include a man who has been there and done it for England at a major tournament. Especially with Tyrone Mings, who was impressive despite some questionable distribution in the opening half, making a first tournament start as the left-sided centre back.
Not that it will be much consolation to Chilwell as he figures out the next step to getting back into Southgate’s plans.
Maybe England, with room to breathe in this stifling and expectant summer, can be less conservative for the next two games. Swathes of the nation are still calling on the manager to go on the front foot but for all the clamour over including Jack Grealish, it is the selection further back that is raising more eyebrows.