Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are one of the most formidable center-back pairs in world football, but it is England, not Italy, who have the best defensive record at Euro 2020 ahead of Sunday’s final. . Gareth Southgate has found a winning formula.
Mikkel Damsgaard’s stunning free-kick ended his record-breaking streak of clean sheets in the tournament, but England haven’t been beaten in open play since March, when Poland’s Jakub Moder shot Nick Pope in the tournament. a qualifying match for the World Cup.
Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane were the most notable performers in the race to the final, scoring three and four goals respectively and deservedly deserving of praise for their winning contributions.
But England’s success at Euro 2020 rests on solid foundations. The Southgate team is well organized and difficult to break down. Their backline is great but it is also flexible and there is one player, often overlooked, who makes the system work.
At Wembley on Wednesday, it took less than 10 minutes of England’s semi-final victory over Denmark for Kyle Walker to show why he is particularly important to the Southgate defense.
In his first confrontation with Joakim Maehle, Denmark’s most dangerous offensive selling point, he left the extended winger helpless on the grass, regaining possession of England and setting the tone for an individual duel he would win. with force.
Soon after, he sprinted to his own box to prevent Damsgaard from scoring the first goal.
The 21-year-old had breached the England defense, leaving Harry Maguire and John Stones in his wake, but Walker was aware of the danger, his pace allowing him to come back and save the day.
Those two moments – barely a minute apart – summed up why Walker has become a mainstay of this England side.
Southgate has enviable options at right-back, including injured Trent Alexander-Arnold, as well as Reece James and Kieran Trippier, but none are able to stop opponents like Walker – and none are able to sweep away danger like him either.
Walker had a tough time in possession of the ball during the tournament, particularly in the opener against Croatia, when a series of misplaced passes caused some unease for England. But he performed his two main functions impeccably.
The 31-year-old faced tough opponents on England’s right flank including Croatia’s Ivan Perisic, Germany’s Robin Gosens and of course Dane Maehle.
But it is no coincidence that neither of these players have been able to create a single scoring opportunity or even have a shot on target in their games against England.
They couldn’t navigate past Walker and the stats prove it. According to Opta, he hasn’t been dribbled once in 480 minutes of action in this tournament.
Walker is an exceptional one-on-one defender and the meteoric recovery run to turn Damsgaard off in those early stages against Denmark was not an isolated incident either.
In fact, Walker has been seen stifling opposition counterattacks on several occasions during the tournament, just as he is for Manchester City at the domestic level. His athleticism allows his club to play a high defensive line and it’s the same story with England.
He hasn’t generally defended in the spotlight during the tournament – so his numbers of tackles and interceptions are relatively low – but most importantly, he averages more balls every 90 minutes than any other. departing from England.
This statistic highlights Walker’s effectiveness when it comes to reading danger and dealing with it, and just as importantly, it also offers Southgate’s tactical flexibility.
He can be an effective weapon offensively, but he’s also comfortable retreating to the center-back, providing the defensive balance needed to allow Luke Shaw to bombard forward on the opposite flank.
The Manchester United left-back certainly appreciated this freedom of attack, providing three assists in the tournament and drawing comparisons to Brazilian Roberto Carlos. But it was Walker on the right who gave him the platform to impress.
Walker’s versatility also allows Southgate to change his system, both between games – as he did for the round of 16 triumph over Germany, when the last four became a three – and during them. – as he did when Kieran Trippier was signed on for Jack Grealish to see the finals against Denmark.
Walker is not considered one of the “ancient tribals” of Southgate. These roles belong to Kane, Sterling, Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson. But he is in fact the longest serving player on the squad having turned 31 in May and his experience is undoubtedly invaluable.
Bukayo Saka would certainly testify to this.
The Arsenal youngster received a constant stream of on-field instruction from Walker when he played ahead of him against Denmark and the Manchester City defender’s advice will certainly be just as important to anyone who lines up against Italy.
For Walker, Sunday’s final is territory that only passed him last year, when it was found to have violated Covid guidelines, which would have infuriated Southgate, having already lost his place in the English manager’s team.
He returned to the fold last September, making his first England appearance in over a year against Iceland in the Nations League, but a red card in Reykjavik left him worried that his 49th cap might be his last. “I hope I will be back,” he said Air sports after this game. He didn’t seem to believe it.
It is to his immense credit that he was able to return to the race and he is now heading to England’s first final in 55 years as an undisputed starter in a team that is on the brink of glory.
He faces another severe test against Lorenzo Insigne, one of the tournament’s best players on Italy’s left flank, but perhaps he is the one who should be worried. As Perisic, Gosens, and Maehle already discovered, Walker takes a few hits.