Kyle Walker now has more England caps than Sir Geoff Hurst. “Which is incredible,” Gareth Southgate said, and the England manager meant that sincerely, his admiration for Walker’s achievement plain.
The Manchester City defender won his 50th cap in the 2-1 Nations League win against Belgium on Sunday and it took him level on the all-time list with Phil Neal. “Obviously, I was the only one in the dressing room who knew,” Southgate said, with a smile. Neal, the richly decorated Liverpool full-back, won the last of his caps in 1983.
Southgate mentioned how he and the players had made a presentation to Walker before the Belgium game and the first thing to say is that the landmark looked unlikely as recently as last month. On 5 September, Walker had got himself sent off for a second yellow card against Iceland, when the score was 0-0, putting his team in danger – although they squeaked to a 1-0 win. In an emotional TV interview afterwards, he voiced the fear he might not get another chance.
It was Walker’s first call-up since September 2019 at the Nations League finals and he had come to feel like a forgotten man during his stint in the deep freeze. That made what happened against Iceland even more of a disaster.
After his starring performance against Belgium, however, Walker stands as the Comeback Kid and he is not the only one in Southgate’s team. Eric Dier, too, had not featured since the Nations League finals when he returned against Iceland and, following a switch to central defence, he now appears a fixture in Southgate’s preferred XI.
Walker and Dier were two of the heroes of England’s run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals, even if the latter was not a starter, and the sense is that as Southgate plans for the European Championship finals next summer he is turning back to what he knows both in terms of personnel and formation.
Against Belgium he started with five players who had begun the World Cup semi-final defeat against Croatia and that did not include Dier. Moreover Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane would have started if they had been fit or fitter, respectively. Southgate had a problem on the left of his defence and so he jammed in Kieran Trippier, his World Cup right wing-back, out of position. He would describe him as a “warrior”.
The sight of Walker on the right of a central defensive three was the clearest symbol of the back-to-the-future theme. It was where he had problem-solved at the World Cup and, in Southgate’s new 3-4-3 system – a variation on the 3-5-2 he used in Russia – Walker’s qualities were again evident; his speed on the cover, strength in the one-on-ones and surges out of defence with the ball at his feet. His pace is particularly important with Dier and Harry Maguire to his side.
What Southgate wanted against Belgium – the No 1-ranked team in world football – and wants moving forward is stability. That does not come only from the defence, rather the structure and protection in front of it, but it is underpinned by a capacity to dig in when the going is tough, which is about mentality, experience.
Having moved away from 4-3-3, which Southgate had played since the World Cup, he remains committed to three forwards. Sterling, Kane and either Marcus Rashford or Jadon Sancho provide the reasons for excitement. Jack Grealish is another one.
For Southgate, it is about finding the balance behind them and he will hear criticism for erring on the side of caution with two midfielders – in Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice – whose game is to sit. But not if the team continue to fashion results such as the one against Belgium.
“The key was we needed our experienced players on the field,” Southgate said. “We’ve got multiple young players in the squad but we knew a game like Belgium – you need those experienced players. It’s the togetherness that they’ve bonded over a long period of time because of the experiences they’ve had on and off the pitch; the closeness of their relationships; their understanding of what’s needed to win the biggest games.
“That team two years ago hadn’t played so many matches with us, they hadn’t played some of the big matches with their clubs, they didn’t have experience of winning the things they’ve done with their clubs. So in those moments of pressure [against Belgium], they were better able to survive and to come through.”
England were almost overrun in the first half and, plainly, there is plenty of work to be done. But the reaction in the second half – the greater tightness, the fight – was a source of encouragement.
The wing-backs are the dial between attack and defence and, against Belgium, it was set towards the latter. The formation more closely resembled a back five. But there is attacking potential in Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ben Chilwell, who is available to return for Wednesday’s Nations League tie against Denmark, not to mention Trippier. Chilwell has been on the sidelines after breaching the government’s “rule of six” and suffering a slight illness and it is clear Trippier has set the standard with his professionalism.
It is what is fundamental to Southgate. He needs to know upon whom he can rely. The World Cup provides the clues.