Defences win titles. The old adage has effectively been stitched into the fabric of this England team by Gareth Southgate. A former defender himself, the England boss has braved waves of criticism - at best, mildly constructive, and at worst, downright unnecessary - throughout Euro 2020 and now finds himself in the unfamiliar terrain of being in proximity of success.
The reasoning for him was fairly simple: the means justify the ends. If boring football yields success, then he would gladly lull everyone to sleep if it meant that they woke up to the sight of silverware. One suspects his own experiences have drilled into him this curious blandness - at the biggest moment of his career, he chose panache over pragmatism, attempting to deftly place a crucial penalty for England against Germany, instead of whacking it into the net.
Euro 1996, for the Three Lions, was thus a chapter tearfully closed and sorted into the ever-burgeoning file of ‘what-if’ moments for the England men’s team.
In his second coming as Three Lions manager, Southgate, having picked the patently unpopular side in football’s eternal debate, needed to drill his philosophy into his young charges. Structure over style, functionality over flair. Keep the opposition at arm’s length.
Vindication for England is one match away. Throughout the whole tournament, they’ve conceded just the one goal, which happened to be a majestic Mikkel Damsgaard freekick that caught out Jordan Pickford. No goal has been scored from open play against England. No team had an xG against lower than England - 2.95 overall, before the semi-final goal against Denmark.
Plaudits have rightly gone to Luke Shaw, who has been a menace from left-back with three assists. Harry Maguire has been sturdy, and John Stones next to him hasn’t put a foot wrong so far. Curiously enough, the spotlight of praise gets dimmed when it’s shone on Kyle Walker.
Kyle Walker, the unsung hero of England's brilliant defence
Walker, however, is arguably the most critical facet of England’s defensive quartet.
The Manchester City man has added positional versatility to his game and can prop up at right-back, right wing-back and right-side centre-back. The first and third positions have been crucial for England and their progression to the final of Euro 2020.
The tournament has undoubtedly been one of supreme performances from full backs: Gosens, Dumfries, Alba, Zuber and Maehle have all been standout performers for their teams. The same goes for Walker’s teammate Shaw, and his would-be opponent for the final, Italy’s Leonardo Spinazzola, cruelly ruled out after his achilles injury.
Notably, most of the plaudits were showered on the above list of names for their attacking vigour and their smart ability to stretch the play. Walker cannot be said to be deserving of these compliments, for he has been invisible in attack. That’s not squarely his fault - his lack of overlaps on England’s right hand side is clearly a tactical ploy. Walker deserves praise for his discipline and his defensive strength.
Aptly, to understand Walker’s indispensability to the England team, one needs to understand how the others operate with respect to him.
England’s first two matches were arguably the dullest of the group stage, yielding just the one goal. There was little creativity, which boiled down to too many cooks spoiling the broth. Indeed, England starting with Mason Mount and Foden and Harry Kane meant that fairly often, they just got in each other’s way.
All of them like roaming around in midfield, and none of them are particularly in the touchline-hugging mould. This meant that England would often play very narrow, with little support from their full-backs, who were instructed to not bomb forward, lest England compromise its ironclad protection of Pickford’s goal. Pragmatic, Gareth.
Things began to fall into place with the induction of Bukayo Saka into the starting eleven in place of Foden. Saka has the versatility to tuck inside, while also having the ability to beat his opponent down the touchline.
The pushing back of the opposition full-back, therefore, made the winger/midfielder up against Walker drop further back towards his own goal to pick up passes down the line. This freed up Walker to deal with any potential threats down his side, which allows Stones and Maguire to cover for Luke Shaw instead, who was belatedly given the license to move up the pitch and join the attack - and that too with aplomb, given his multiple assists.
In this structure, Walker just has to hold his position and act as a wide sweeper almost, tasked with cleaning up the leftovers of an opponent's attack. Simple and effective. In holding his position, he transforms England’s defence into an auxiliary back three, without the defensive midfield duo of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips having to slot into the backline, which in turn allows them to focus on the midfield press, in the knowledge that sufficient protection remains in defence.
This makes for an uncanny and unlikely resemblance to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City - where Walker incidentally plays his club football - with one of the full-backs generally holding their position, as the other moves into midfield and joins the attack.
The natural question is: why does this role fall on Walker’s shoulders particularly?
The answer is in his natural gift - his speed.
He has almost developed an Ashley Cole-esque knack for spectacular goalline clearances. What that underlines is not just his brilliant positioning for the clearances, but the remarkable recovery speed needed to get into those positions in the first place.
Pace is generally touted as an asset for attack, but Walker exemplifies how it is increasingly - given the frenetic, high-tempo nature of the game today - indispensable at the back.
Therefore, with his conservative positioning and his lightning quick speed, Walker becomes the perfect recovery defender. With him in the lineup, England effectively shut down their right hand side. In the semifinal, for instance, Denmark’s opening forays were predominantly through left, exploiting the spaces that Luke Shaw left in defence. Walker’s positioning also effectively took Joachim Maehle - as mentioned earlier, one of the starring full-backs of the tournament - out of the game, forcing Denmark to build their attacks through Jens Stryger, which by extension implies greater attention on the Udinese wing-back.
Indeed, this structuring of the England defence - allowed for by Walker’s discipline and experience - ensured that Denmark made only 6 attempts, from only 29 attacks. England, meanwhile, made 21 attempts from 81 attacks.
Grealish should thank Walker too?
Jack Grealish’s devastating impact off the bench - as has been the case in most of England’s games - also owes some of its efficacy to Walker. Grealish takes up the left hand side of England’s attack, which moves Raheem Sterling to the right. Sterling, one of England’s stars at Euro 2020, is right-footed, and also has the ability to cut inside and look for through balls from half-spaces.
Exploiting this duality means pinning down the opposition full-back again, dragging the opponent towards their own goal, allowing Walker to retain his wide sweeper position, if any counter attack breaks from opposition ranks. The responsibility of providing width, therefore, does not fall on Walker - similar to when Saka starts - and falls on Sterling, who can stretch opponents by going around them, while Grealish does the same from the left.
Grealish can thus take up his favoured position, from where he wreaks havoc, while Sterling shifts flanks and immediately England become a more dangerous and dynamic attacking prospect. The two wide players are not tasked with tracking back much as a reason.
The evolution of Kyle Walker has been remarkable - once deemed an average full-back at Tottenham, he has now become a versatile, mature asset for England as they chase their first international trophy in 55 years. He still has the odd mistake in him - the Ukraine game was not one of his best - but he also has the capability to literally make up for it with his positioning and speed.
In his wide sweeper role, he is the extra man at the back for Gareth Southgate’s pragmatic crew, and if England are to win, his role and discipline in the final against Italy will be key.
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