England’s soft center remains Gareth Southgate’s biggest headache | England

Tthere is always room for improvement here. The mood in England’s camp is high after their 6-2 victory over Iran on Monday, but no one is resting on their laurels. There is an awareness that more rigorous testing is looming, starting with Friday’s encounter with a fast and inventive US side, and much of the focus this week has been on correcting the defensive sloppiness that has seen Iran score two goals in the second half at Khalifa International Stadium.

That dip in concentration has preoccupied Gareth Southgate. It was a reminder not to get carried away during this tournament of shocks and gave weight to the idea that the biggest obstacle to England’s chances of winning the World Cup is their defence.

The fact that England kept five clean sheets during Euro 2020 has been forgotten. Concerns about Harry Maguire’s fight for Manchester United have not been completely allayed by his performance against Iran. There was a flare of concern as United centre-back Mehdi Taremi lost before the Iranian striker scored his first goal past Jordan Pickford, who was angry at not getting a clean sheet. It remains to be seen whether Southgate trusts Maguire and John Stones. to flourish in a back-four against the very best.

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The general consensus is that England’s favored centre-back has it all to prove. The fear is that Stones and Maguire won’t be enough if England find themselves against France or Brazil in the final stages, convincing Southgate to leave the 4-3-3 that devastated Iran behind and Kyle Walker as third centre-back bring in a defender.

The debate is incessant. On the one hand, there is the argument that England will not play at its strongest if it sacrifices an attacker; on the other hand, it’s easy to see why Southgate is more comfortable with Walker’s pace as insurance against the top.

“It’s good that we’re versatile and can go from a four to a five,” said Stones. “Our thinking process is: ‘How is the opposition going to position itself? How will they attack, do they have certain moves and playstyles? How are we going to counter and defeat that?’ Whether it’s a four or a five – in the European Championship we even switched games and did well – whatever system we play, we feel comfortable.”

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Probable England v USA lineups

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England (4-2-3-1): Pickford; Trippier, Stones, Maguire, Shaw; Bellingham, Rice; Saka, Berg, Sterling; Kane
USA (4-3-3): turner; Dest, Zimmerman, Ream, Robinson; Adams, McKennie, Musah; Reyna, Weah, Pulisic

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That was all very un-message. Alone, Stones has played for Manchester City for the past six years. The 28-year-old can rightfully call himself one of Europe’s best defenders, has won four Premier League titles and can be forgiven for objecting to the idea that England should pull out if they face Kylian Mbappé, Neymar and Vinicius Junior.

Stones said he and Maguire don’t necessarily have to play in a back three against Brazil and France. “But if we come up against those teams, it’s up to the manager and us to adapt to a new system because of the qualities they bring and how we can counter that.”

Still, England kept two clean sheets in 2022. There can be no repeat of the unfocused end of the game against Iran when they face the US, who have a quick and tricky attack.

“It was annoying,” Stones said. “I’m frustrated with myself because of how well we’ve done in previous tournaments with keeping the sheets clean and being solid. We have reviewed the footage and will do it again to refresh my mind. The overriding feeling was that what we did was great and those little details that led to those goals we just need to brush up on.

One concern for Stones is how the VAR works. He remains baffled that he gave away a penalty against Iran for a slight tug on Morteza Pouraliganji’s shirt. The frustration was compounded by the referees’ failure to award penalties to Stones and Maguire when they were pulled over earlier.

“I know Harry was put in the limelight initially, but I’m not one to go down and I immediately appealed for a penalty,” said Stones. “I didn’t even know Harry had had the same thing. Looking at it I’m a little flabbergasted that nothing was called and then it was for something that, in my opinion, was never, ever, ever a penalty.

“I’m not one to admit silly fouls and I don’t believe that with the amount of jostling that goes on in a penalty area, a little tug on the shirt will cause someone’s knees to buckle and go over. There has to be consistency and that’s where everyone’s frustration lies.”

England will have to be careful about defending set pieces. “We know what we have to do well and we know that we risk being punished for certain things,” said Southgate. “For all teams in the tournament, there is a concern when you are not quite sure what is going to be given.”

The search for perfection has begun. “I think I can always do better,” said Stones. “But football is a difficult game and I don’t think you’ll get through one without making mistakes sometimes. It’s striving for perfection, which I don’t think will ever be achieved. But that’s the goal.”

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