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  3. > [2024 European Cup England]Gareth Southgate’s biggest Euro 2024 mistake has been exposed as England's left-back problem threatens to be their undoing

[2024 European Cup England]Gareth Southgate’s biggest Euro 2024 mistake has been exposed as England's left-back problem threatens to be their undoing

Ask any England fan to pick one trait of Gareth Southgate’s managerial style and the words ‘risk’ and ‘averse’ are bound to come up. The manager’s cautious nature explains why he has always favoured having two holding midfielders and why he has been careful to call up players into his squad as soon as they start making a name for themselves at their club.


But lately he has thrown caution to the wind and gone against his usual nature. In March, he fast-tracked then-18-year-old Kobbie Mainoo into the squad after initially leaving him out. In May, he dispensed with long-time servants Jordan Henderson and Marcus Rashford for his provisional squad for Euro 2024, before also snubbing Jack Grealish for his final squad. He also brought in Adam Wharton despite him having less than four months of top-flight experience.


But the biggest risk Southgate took was including Luke Shaw in his squad for the Euros despite him being injured since February. And now that decision, coupled with the call to pick no other natural left-back as a back-up, is looking like the manager's biggest mistake…


Obvious shortcomings

Shaw’s continued absence means England have no left-footed full-backs in their 26-man squad, and that has been a real problem for the Three Lions in their messy start to their campaign in Germany. Kieran Trippier’s lack of suitability for the role could be seen in the warm-up games against Bosnia & Herzegovina and Iceland, when England would look to play fast moves down the left flank, only for the Newcastle defender to slow the play down as he needed an extra touch to cross the ball with his right foot.


Trippier's ineptitude in the role has become even more pronounced in Germany, with him looking incapable of overlapping against Serbia or Denmark. Trippier - perhaps inhibited by a calf problem that he has been managing through the tournament - made very few runs forward, and when he did, his team-mates did not want to pass the ball to him. It meant that England only attacked down the right or the middle in either game, and it is no coincidence that both of the team’s goals have come from the right flank.


It is a huge contrast to the last two tournaments, when Shaw was fit and firing. England scored two of their most important goals at Euro 2020 down the left flank, with Shaw setting up Raheem Sterling in the last-16 win over Germany and the left-back himself scoring in the final against Italy after combining with Trippier.


Trippier also showed a lack of positional sense when Denmark scored their equaliser, as Harry Kane appeared in the left-back position and played an aimless pass that was intercepted.


Mounting issues

Southgate was quick to acknowledge after the Denmark game that Shaw’s absence was a big factor in England’s underwhelming performances so far in Germany.


“It is clear in terms of the balance of the team that we don’t have our best left-back, so that denies you that balance,” he said. “But I think Tripps has done an incredible job for the team, his spirit and organisation and desire have helped us get over the line in the last couple of games. So that’s in no way a criticism of him, but it’s obviously going to be different - a right foot rather than a left.”


Trippier’s shortcomings at left-back have had a ripple effect on Phil Foden, who is accustomed to coming in off the wing for City as he has Nathan Ake or Josko Gvardiol over-lapping. So England have a double problem on the left flank, a right-footed player deployed at left-back and a left-winger who has no desire to play on the wing and who really sees himself as a No.10. The problem is plain to see and is unlikely to get any better against Slovenia unless Shaw's return to training on Monday is a sign that he is finally match-fit.


'Absolute stinker'

Chris Sutton, never one to mince his words, tore into Southgate for gambling on Shaw’s fitness. “The Luke Shaw call from Gareth has been an absolute stinker,” the former England striker said on the Daily Mail's ‘It’s All Kicking Off’ podcast.


“We’re now at a stage at the tournament when Luke Shaw is still doing his personal programme. In the knockout rounds is Gareth just going to throw in Shaw, who is pretty injury-prone anyway? How is he going to be at the level? That has been another mistake. England are lopsided, they are unbalanced and a large part of that is because Gareth has made the wrong call.”


To be fair to Southgate, England do have a severe lack of left-back options due to the injury problems of Shaw and Ben Chilwell, the latter being unable to play for Chelsea since April, though it is claimed that he would have been ready for the Euros if selected. While the Three Lions have three right-backs in their Euros squad plus Reece James (injured) and Ben White (unwilling to be selected), there is a dearth of left-backs across English football right now, and indeed around the world.


And part of that is due to how football has evolved over the last decade. Many of the best modern left-backs started out as left wingers, such as Jordi Alba and Alphonso Davies. But that route has been blocked off by the emergence of inverted wingers who play on the side of their weaker foot.


Overlooked

Southgate, however, made a big oversight when he picked his squad for the tournament and left out Tyrick Mitchell. Mitchell has had an outstanding season for Crystal Palace and has shown remarkable durability, playing 37 out of 38 Premier League games.


Mitchell thrived when Oliver Glasner took charge of Palace and started playing him as left wing-back in a 3-4-2-1 shape. He helped the Eagles win six of their last seven matches of the campaign, setting up the only goal in the victory at Liverpool and scoring in the 4-0 drubbing of Manchester United.


One could argue that Mitchell could struggle with playing in a back four after spending the last few months as a wing-back. But the fact he is actually left-footed and has spent the whole season playing on the left wing would surely have made him a better option than Trippier or Joe Gomez, who did well as a stand-in left-back for Liverpool but is also right-footed. And unlike Shaw, he would have been fit and ready to play.


Mitchell has two England caps from two years ago, but is far more experienced now, and he would have been in good company as Southgate picked four of his Palace team-mates in the squad.


Last resort?

England’s left-back problem has got so bad that some analysts are calling for Southgate to play Bukayo Saka in the role. Saka is left-footed and played as a left-back at youth level for England as well as in his first season for Arsenal on occasion. Playing Saka on the left would allow Foden to switch from playing off the left to playing off the right and allow him to dovetail with Kyle Walker, which he did so effectively for City last season.


But asking Saka to suddenly learn the left-back role after establishing himself as one of the best right-sided forwards in the world would be showing him a lack of respect and taking another risk at such an important stage of the tournament.


The fact that Saka is even being talked about as a left-back option shows how bad things have got for England and underlines the stupidity of gambling on Shaw’s fitness and taking no back-ups.


Southgate previously won plaudits for building a cohesive England team, but in his fourth major tournament he has taken to improvising. He now has minimal time to come up with a solution to problem that could have been forecast long ago, merely by looking at Shaw’s injury history.

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