Southgate struggling to make case for England defence in time for Qatar

For an illustration of the problems that Gareth Southgate has faced for this end-of-season Nations League programme, why he feared a slap in the face, which duly arrived against Hungary on Saturday night, it is necessary to start at the back.

The England manager named a squad for the four ties that contained 11 defenders, six of them specialist centre-halves, with the versatile Kyle Walker considered a seventh in a back three. More than enough, surely?

Southgate lost one of them straight away – Ben White withdrawing through injury – while it emerged that Fikayo Tomori and Marc Guéhi would not be fit enough to start in Budapest or the second game, which is against Germany in Munich on Tuesday night.

On to the remaining four options. John Stones came back from injury for Manchester City on the final day of the Premier League season on 22 May and he was not 100% for Hungary, while Harry Maguire – who has struggled desperately for form – returned to the Manchester United starting XI on the same day after a lay-off.

Walker last played for City on 4 May because of injury, although he was an unused substitute for them on the final day, which leaves Conor Coady alone among the central defenders to have finished the club season properly.

Southgate did not want to start Stones in Budapest, perhaps with an eye on Germany, and nor – understandably – did he want to play Maguire and Coady as a central defensive pair for fear of their lack of pace being exposed. And so he went with them plus Walker in a three. It was pretty much his only option, even if did not feel ideal.

“We knew with the centre-backs to try to navigate these first couple of games while Fik and Marc are out, we probably needed to use Kyle Walker as a centre-back,” Southgate said.

Meanwhile, the hole at left-back burns. Ben Chilwell is not fit, having returned from a six-month knee ligament lay-off on the final day for Chelsea as an 89th-minute substitute, and Luke Shaw is injured, too. Kieran Trippier, who can provide an option on the left, made his first start for Newcastle after a three-month injury absence on the final day.

Southgate gave a debut to James Justin at left wing-back – a full-back who can play on both sides – and on the right he preferred Trent Alexander-Arnold to Reece James. Because in among all the mix and matching, and the need to manage players’ minutes, Southgate wanted to experiment a little and look further at other things.

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