A groin injury for Kyle Walker has left him a major doubt for the upcoming World Cup in Qatar, handing Gareth Southgate a major selection headache in the process.
The Manchester City defender was forced off in the first half of his side’s 6-3 win over rivals Manchester United, and Pep Guardiola has revealed that the Englishman will be sidelined for ‘a while’ following surgery, with the Telegraph reporting that the injury has left his World Cup availability in doubt.
Should he prove unable to add to his 70 caps this winter, Southgate will have big decisions to make, with Walker’s pace a key facet to England’s game from right centre-back, allowing him to cover Harry Maguire in the middle.
Here are three ways that he can offset the issue.
1. Slide to the left
After moving Kyle Walker to centre-back from right-back in the early months of his tenure, Southgate could repeat the trick with Chelsea defender Reece James.
England’s right-back options have been a source of jokes for some time now, with plenty of choice available to Southgate including Kieran Trippier, James and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
James is the most similar to Walker, with plenty of pace and quality on the ball, while he has also had experience playing at centre-back in a back three during his time with Chelsea.
While he may be the most like-for-like change that Southgate could make, and while it would also allow him to include another right back (most likely Kieran Trippier judging by recent comments), James’ world-class attacking threat would be virtually snuffed out in one fell swoop, and the Englishman looks far less comfortable being asked to sit back than he does being given free roam to move forward.
Ideally, he would be kept at right-wing-back, but the alternatives suggest he may not be given that luxury.
2. Call up Ben White
Another option, though perhaps one that has now come too late for consideration for the traditionally reserved Southgate is to call up Arsenal defender Ben White.
The former Brighton and Leeds man was bafflingly overlooked in the most recent Nations League squad despite being in fine form, and his versatility means that he can play as a central defender or more recently as a right-back in a back four.
Comfortable on the ball, he has plenty of experience playing in a traditional back three from his time at Brighton, while his pace and ability on the ball make him a strong weapon to have for any side.
Having not played for England since March despite his good form, it seems unlikely that Southgate would be willing to throw him straight into the starting XI against Iran. He may be a good fit, but it might just be too little too late for White.
3. A lifeline for Tomori?
Walker has, of course, been out of the England side before. In the last international against Germany, he was handed a rest from the start, with John Stones shuffling across to the right side of the Southgate’s back three and Harry Maguire moving to the left side, though an injury to Stones meant that this experiment was over before half time.
This seems unlikely to happen again though, with both Dier and Maguire having the same strengths and weaknesses, meaning both are suited to the central spot in a back three but ill-suited to a role in the wider areas.
It could, however, offer a chance for Fikayo Tomori to lay claim to a spot, with the AC Milan defender a standout star last season and yet to receive the recognition on the international stage that he has had domestically.
Left out of the matchday squad against Germany and still having only made three appearances for the Three Lions, he is clearly out of favour by the England boss. However, circumstances have changed, and having his speed and defensive nous on the left side of defence could be crucial.
The Wildcard: A back 4?
The final, and least likely option is for Southgate to roll out a back four in Walker’s absence. The back 5 and the England boss have become synonymous, and he has take the Three Lions to a semi-final and a final in major tournaments with it, which is nothing to be sniffed at.
But relegation from their Nations League group suggested that perhaps it is starting to show its age, while its key performers are either injured in the case of Walker or woefully out of favour in the cases of Manchester United duo Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw.
A back four, freeing up another spot for one of England’s many attacking talents, could help avoid the turgid, rigid and uninspiring football that England have shown off in recent months, while also making the best use of the nation’s most in-form players rather than those coming into the tournament with not much football under their belt this season.
Of course, this is highly unlikely, with the risks likely to be far too high to warrant Southgate to consider a change in system this close to a major tournament, but it is certainly a possibility that seems more attractive with Walker’s absence.