Gareth Southgate’s biggest relief on Sunday afternoon would have been seeing his bold selection calls pay off as England kicked off their Euro 2020 campaign with a win against Croatia.
Kalvin Phillips and Raheem Sterling were two surprise inclusions but the pair combined for the only goal of the game at a sun-drenched Wembley Stadium.
The other selection call which raised more than a few eyebrows was that of Kieran Trippier, naturally a right back, being handed the left back spot for his country, with Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw missing out.
Kieran Trippier repaid Gareth Southgate’s faith as England kept a clean sheet against Croatia
Trippier was selected at left back ahead of Luke Shaw (left) and Ben Chilwell (right)
The Chelsea left back helped his side win their second Champions League crown having learnt the left wing-back role on the job under Thomas Tuchel – all in his first season at Stamford Bridge after a £50million move from Leicester.
Manchester United left back Shaw, meanwhile, scooped the club’s Players’ Player of the Year award after a stellar season in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s back four, and while he had to settle for a place on the bench in England’s Euros opener, Chilwell was snubbed altogether.
While the Three Lions struggled to provide natural attacking balance down the left, Southgate – as with his other selections – was vindicated by the clean sheet recorded by a defence that, in truth, was rarely tested.
With that in mind, does Southgate stick or twist in the left back position when his side face what he described as ‘an incredible game’ against Scotland at the same venue on Friday? Sportsmail takes a look at the positive headache he faces…
Southgate definitely appeared to err on the side of caution in a bid to avoid another defeat by Croatia, with the 2018 World Cup semi-final heartbreak very much in the back of their minds.
Part of that more conservative approach was the deployment of 30-year-old Trippier down the left to combat his Atletico Madrid team-mate Sime Vrsaljko, with whom he won LaLiga this term.
It was not the first time Southgate had chosen to play the former Tottenham full-back in his less favoured position, and his defensive struggles when he played there against Belgium’s Thomas Meunier in October last year certainly made it an interesting choice.
‘I’m slightly surprised at Trippier playing in that left back position because he’s never played left back for Atletico at all this season it’s always been right back,’ Alan Shearer said before the match.
‘He’s played there before with England but he’s never played there this season.’
Sportsmail columnist Micah Richards added: ‘Kieran Tripper at left back, he’ll do a job. But when you play full-back your body positions are completely different when you’re trying to come out with the ball.
‘There might be a ball down the side he can’t play on his left foot. I played left back about five times. They were the five worst of my career.’
But Trippier offered Southgate the reliability he so clearly coveted in their opening game of a major tournament, providing much-needed experience to the international inexperience next to him.
‘Well with Kieran, we feel he is a very experienced player, he did well against one player to stop crosses coming in,’ Southgate said before the game.
‘His communication and leadership I think will be a help. We have got changes in the backline and I think his experience will help us with the two boys who are out of the squad, including Harry Maguire.’
Trippier offered Southgate (right) the reliability he so clearly coveted in their opening game
Chilwell had a stellar campaign with Chelsea and helped them win the Champions League
‘He is a top, top player,’ centre back Tyrone Mings said of Trippier’s influence against Croatia. ‘He’s very experienced and he talked me through the game.’
Statistics from Sofascore also demonstrate just how important the Atletico Madrid star was defensively against Zlatko Dalic’s side.
His five recoveries on a sweltering afternoon at Wembley was perhaps the most impressive aspect, but he also won half of both his duels and aerial duels, as well as making two tackles and one interception.
What was equally noticeable, however, was the lack of attacking runs that Trippier made beyond goalscorer Sterling. While England oozed defensive stability against a tame Croatia attack, the attacking balance was lacking on the left-hand side.
That is not to say that Trippier and Sterling did not combine at all at Wembley on Sunday. The duo linked up on 20 occasions in total, with Trippier finding Sterling 12 times and the latter returning the favour eight times.
They most notably combined when Trippier’s throw-in sent Sterling into space before he found the pass to Manchester City team-mate Phil Foden, who cut inside Josko Gvardiol and hit the inside of the post.
But it was a rare occurrence of their link-up leading to anything substantial, with Trippier creating just one chance, zero big chances, having no touches in the opposition box as well as failing to deliver a single cross in the whole 90 minutes.
But looking at his attacking numbers for Atletico in 2020-21, Trippier was not inferior to his Man United counterpart Shaw and Chilwell only just managed to better his figures, although he was deployed in his more natural role at club level.
The 30-year-old managed six assists in 35 games across all competitions for Atletico, the same number as Shaw managed across 47 matches for the Red Devils.
The 25-year-old also found the net once, but it was Chilwell who bettered both, recording seven assists and scoring four goals for the Blues in 42 games. This is reinforced by the fact that he had, on average, the most touches in the opposition box of any of the three players vying for that left back spot for England.
The trio all managed an average of 0.2 big chances per game in their respective teams, while Shaw was the clear winner in chances created with an average of 2.2 per game, but Trippier’s crossing accuracy was the highest.
Man United left back Shaw scooped the club’s Players’ Player of the Year award last season
And although he perhaps plays for a manager in Diego Simeone who prides himself on defensive solidity more – until the beginning of this season at least – than his side’s attacking flair, Trippier’s defensive stats show just why he is said to have an excellent relationship with the Argentine.
He had the best duel and aerial success rate of the trio, despite averaging fewer battles on the floor than Chilwell and Shaw, while his average return on tackles, interceptions and headed clearances was also the best.
Blocks and recoveries were where Shaw excelled for Man United this season, and he was the player who, on average, was dribbled past by an opponent the least in comparison to Chilwell and Trippier.
The answer therefore to who starts for the Three Lions in what will be a momentous occasion against Scotland at Wembley on Friday will depend on the threat Southgate believes Steve Clarke’s men will pose.
Trippier did link-up with Raheem Sterling (left) but failed to get beyond him and deliver crosses
If it was up to former England right back Gary Neville, Shaw or Chilwell would certainly come in for their next Euro 2020 clash.
‘I was shocked by the inclusion of Trippier at left back but not in a doubting way,’ Neville told ITV.
‘I don’t think there would be one person in the 65 million English population who would pick that team today.
‘I think he will pull one of the left backs back in. The clean sheet today was vital. I think Chilwell and Shaw would have gone forward more. Kieran Trippier sat a little bit deeper. Against Scotland he will go to one of those two.’
Neville’s reasoning may well be based on the chance that Stephen O’Donnell or James Forrest could well look to be more adventurous when it comes to creating opportunities down England’s left-hand side with speed and overlaps.
Trippier’s attacking numbers’s at right back for LaLiga winners Atletico Madrid were excellent
Scotland also possess a huge amount of talent on their left-hand side, with Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney an option to play on the left side of a back three and flanked by Liverpool star Andy Robertson.
That could thwart some of the attacking talent that the likes of Phil Foden, Kyle Walker and Jadon Sancho possess and could lead England to attack down what is on paper a less strong Scotland right-hand side.
Overlapping runs and first-time deliveries into the box, which are difficult for a right-footer on the left-hand side, could therefore be critical to England’s attacking display as well as their high press and that would lean Southgate’s selection in Chilwell’s favour.
England could be forced to attack down their left with Scotland having Andy Robertson (left) and Kieran Tierney (right) on their left as a strong part of the Tartan Army defensive line
It is difficult to imagine Southgate completely abandoning his conservative approach, particularly since he warned his side against going ‘a bit soft’ against Scotland.
But after an impressive performance which did not yield the most convincing of scorelines, Southgate will want his side to stamp their authority on this tournament with the sort of statement that Italy and Belgium have already delivered.
England’s attacking options are unquestionably among the most diverse and threatening in the tournament, but it is difficult to see Southgate shunning the chance to strengthen it with a more natural left back than Trippier.