One of Gareth Southgate’s biggest selection issues could actually turn out to be a good thing for England rather than a problem.
The Three Lions boss has a wide range of options at right-back, so many in fact that he has left his most established right-sided defender out of the group for the Euro 2020 qualifiers against Bulgaria and Kosovo, the first of which proved to be a routine win at Wembley.
It was initially surprising to see Kyle Walker omitted from the squad before Southgate revealed he is keen to look at other options in the position.
“It’s an area of the pitch where we have a lot of quality,” Southgate said. “Kyle started the season really well so I explained the situation to him. They all have different strengths.”
Aaron Wan-Bissaka had been set for his senior international debut before suffering a back injury, which forced the Manchester United defender to withdraw. Kieran Trippier – who has returned to the international picture after starting the season well with Atletico Madrid – was chosen ahead of Trent Alexander-Arnold for Saturday evening’s clash at Wembley.
The 28-year-old gave a solid account of himself, but it would not be a shock to see his Liverpool rival handed a starting berth on Tuesday night as Southgate continues to assess his options. In truth, we may not learn a significant amount about either player given that the level of opposition is hardly elite.
But going forward, Southgate faces the difficult task of picking between Alexander-Arnold, Trippier, Walker and Wan-Bissaka, all of whom offer very different attributes for the role of an England right-back.
So how exactly do they differ? And who is leading the way when it comes to making the starting line-up at Euro 2020?
Wan-Bissaka and Alexander-Arnold began to emerge as their clubs’ first-choice right-backs in 2017/18, so we’ve looked at the statistics per 90 minutes since the beginning of the 2017/18 Premier League campaign to get a better of idea of who Southgate should go with next summer.
Productivity and creativity
With Liverpool lacking an established playmaker in their squad, Jurgen Klopp trusts his full-backs to be the team’s main creative outlets. And it’s a role Alexander-Arnold has flourished in.
He has provided 15 league assists since August 2017, which is more than Trippier (8), Walker (8) and Wan-Bissaka (3). That said, Trippier created 1.93 chances per 90 minutes across his last two seasons at Spurs, a better rate than Alexander-Arnold (1.78), Walker (0.88) and Wan-Bissaka (0.44).
Those numbers show that Alexander-Arnold and Trippier are perhaps better suited to the ‘wing-back’ role than Walker and Wan-Bissaka. It’s a role we saw Trippier perform brilliantly in at the World Cup last year, while Alexander-Arnold finds himself in advanced positions more often than defensive areas in most matches for Liverpool.
Trippier has started life in Madrid promisingly from a creative perspective, providing a brilliant cross to assist an Alvaro Morata goal on his La Liga debut.
Wing-backs are usually positioned slightly further forward than traditional full-backs. But if Southgate deploys a back four, as he did against Bulgaria, he requires a right-back who can get England up the pitch from defensive areas when needed; a player who can help the team transition into attacking situations.
Walker’s pace makes him the ideal candidate for this. As well as being able to burst forward with the ball at speed, Walker’s overlapping runs off the ball can open up gaps in the opposition defence and provide another passing option, as he demonstrated with a forceful run and assist against West Ham on the opening weekend of the new Premier League season.
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The 30-year-old is also a keen forward passer. Since the beginning of 2017/18, he has made 18.87 successful passes into the final third in the Premier League, more than Alexander-Arnold (12.62), Trippier (15.27) and Wan-Bissaka (8.95).
Wan-Bissaka is also more full-back than wing-back, and he is bettered by Walker in regards to forward-thinking passes, though Crystal Palace – where Wan-Bissaka honed his craft last term before moving to Old Trafford – are of course a less attacking outfit than Manchester City.
What’s more, Wan-Bissaka aids attacking transitions in other ways. During the timeframe in question, he has completed more dribbles per 90 minutes (1.77) than Alexander-Arnold (0.74), Trippier (0.43) and Walker (0.17). Indeed, this is where a player like Trippier – always reluctant to take on an opponent – falls down.
England's squad depth is frightening 😳
🏴 Which position are they strongest in and which are they weakest? pic.twitter.com/gt7OdyKKtC
— Coral (@Coral) September 7, 2019
Defending and duels
Wan-Bissaka’s dribbling ability allows him to get out of tight spaces. In turn, his knowledge of what it takes to complete a take-on has boosted his capacity to stop attackers dribbling past him. It all adds up to make Wan-Bissaka England’s best defensive right-back from a statistical standpoint – although question marks will remain until he actually gets some senior international minutes under his belt.
Per 90 minutes, the 21-year-old has won more tackles (2.77), made more blocks (0.48), completed more clearances (3.71) and made more interceptions (2.25) than his three competitors in the Premier League since the start of 2017/18.
Overall, he has won 7.49 duels per 90 minutes in that time, almost putting the figures of Alexander-Arnold (3.33), Trippier (5.30), and Walker (4.41) to shame.
Again it’s worth noting Wan-Bissaka spent most of the timeframe in question at Crystal Palace, a team tasked with far more defensive responsibilities than Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City. But that shouldn’t take anything away from the Manchester United right-back’s numbers.
A range of versatile options
Ultimately, Southgate has a range of high-potential and established options to work with, giving him the freedom to pick a different right-back depending on the quality and tactical outlook of the opposition.
🏴 England have not lost an international qualifier since October 2009.
🇽🇰 Kosovo have not lost a game since October 2017.
Two unbeaten streaks will be on the line at St. Mary's. pic.twitter.com/yVfwMOSm6Q
— Coral (@Coral) September 7, 2019
The productivity of Alexander-Arnold and Trippier makes them more suitable as wing-backs, while Walker’s attacking transitions would be ideal against teams that sit deep.
Meanwhile, Wan-Bissaka could yet emerge as Southgate’s preference when the opposition possesses attacking quality on the flanks because of his defensive capabilities.