It was Gareth Southgate’s coming of age moment as England manager. Until that point, the suspicion was the former Middlesbrough boss had been the Football Association’s patsy, the cheap option, the only man they could persuade to take the poisoned chalice.
Asked if Manchester United defender Chris Smalling was unable to play out from the back prior to England’s friendlies with Germany and Brazil last year, Southgate replied: “No, I think he can. We have players like (John) Stones and (Eric) Dier and (Harry) Maguire who are even better.”
That was the start of November 2017. Smalling has not been called up since by England. It looks unlikely he will add to his 31 caps for the Three Lions any time soon if Southgate has his way.
“We had the best defensive record in Europe in qualifying,” Southgate added. “But we’re nowhere near the highest scorers and so we’ve got to address that. Part of that is being able to build and create chances.”
There was nothing scandalous about Southgate’s answer and he is far too much of a diplomat to end Smalling’s international career then and there. But it was a coming-of-age moment for the reluctant England manager and an indicator of what he was looking for from his squad.
The aforementioned Stones and Maguire have become mainstays of his three-man defence since then and, along with Manchester City full-back Kyle Walker, look set to start in Volgograd in a week’s time as England face Tunisia in their World Cup Group G opener.
Southgate has made no secret of his preference for a three-man backline, abandoning the traditional back four as soon as England confirmed their place in Russia.
“For me in terms of the way we’d want to play from the back, I think three at the back is a better option,” he explained last October. “At the moment we turn the ball over too much, and when we do we split the two centre-backs wide open.”
Since then England have been committed to a back three and they look comfortable in doing so despite the fact that of the centre-backs in Southgate’s 23-man squad for the World Cup, only Gary Cahill, at Chelsea, regularly plays in the same system for his club.
Maguire, Stones, Phil Jones and Dier all play in a back four while Walker is a buccaneering full-back for champions Manchester City. Yet that is exactly why Southgate has moved the former Tottenham man inside; he is comfortable on the ball and happier still driving forward.
However, on the opposite side England do not have the same luxury. Cahill put in a man-of-the-match performance in Saturday’s friendly win over Nigeria to keep his slim hopes of starting against Tunisia alive. But they’re just that, slim.
The Chelsea skipper is very much in the old-fashioned stopper mould. That’s not the devalue what he can do, particularly on the ball where with 20.92 forward passes per 90 in the Premier League this season, he is only just behind Stones (28.11) and Maguire (20.39). The City defender leads the way for forward passes among England’s centre-back contingent.
Jones, for context, is 25th with an average of just 13.85 while Manchester United team-mate Smalling more than vindicates Southgate’s decision to omit him with a miserable 10.86 forward passes per 90.
Clearly, neither are viable candidates to play on the left-hand side of England’s back three and, had Liverpool prospect Joe Gomez not been ruled out with injury Jones might not even have made the 23.
It was Maguire who got the nod on the left for England’s 2-0 victory over Costa Rica in their final warm-up fixture on Thursday night. Former Three Lions boss Glenn Hoddle, on commentary duties for ITV, suggested Stones would be a better fit given his quality on the ball.
However, interestingly, no English centre-back completes more take-ons per 90 than Maguire. The former Hull City and Sheffield United defender is belied by his bruising demeanour but there is far more intricacy to his game than his sizeable frame suggests.
With 1.34 successful take-ons per 90 last season for Leicester, no top-flight centre-back managed more. In fact, Gomez (1.08) was the only other centre-half to manage more than one, though that number is enhanced by the fact he spent most of the season at full-back for Jürgen Klopp’s men.
Southgate’s decision to suddenly break free of the tried-and-tested back four at the end of qualifying drew plenty of intrigue and, in some quarters, bemusement.
But the former England Under-21 boss has been more than justified in doing so and has avoided the trap many of his predecessors have fallen down in trying to fit all his perceived ‘best players’ into the side. This England is greater than the sum of its parts and that is down to Southgate.