Eight months ago, during the Italy vs England match, Harry Maguire was pressured near the left touchline and attempted to make a forward pass with his weaker foot. However, Italy regained possession and took advantage of the chaos as Mateo Retegui found himself in the open space left by Maguire and Luke Shaw, who would eventually be sent off.
In the September game between Ukraine and England, it appeared that Ben Chilwell was at fault, but in reality, he was left isolated by James Maddison’s failure to track back. This gave Ukraine a two-on-one advantage on their right side, resulting in a goal by Oleksandr Zinchenko off of a cross from Yukhym Konoplya.
A few days after Scotland and England faced off, right-footed Kieran Trippier is now playing as a left-back. Meanwhile, left-footed Andrew Robertson is on the right wing with the ball. Surprising everyone, Robertson makes a move on his weaker side and crosses the ball, leading to an own goal by Maguire.
Last month’s match between England and Australia saw the introduction of a new left-back, Levi Colwill, who typically plays as a centre-half. As Australia made a counter attack and moved the ball towards their right side, Colwill lacked support and chose to let Martin Boyle cross the ball. This led to Mitchell Duke missing one of Australia’s most promising opportunities in the game.
A few days after that, England faced off against Italy. Trippier, who is known for his clever tactics, returned to the field and continued to maneuver the opposing wingers towards the center. On this occasion, Domenico Berardi took the bait, but Trippier’s focus on his preferred right side caused him to overlook Giovanni di Lorenzo’s sneaky run behind him. Berardi managed to pass the ball to Di Lorenzo, who then assisted Gianluca Scamacca in scoring a goal.
On Friday night, the match moved to Malta with only 20 seconds remaining. As soon as they received the ball, Malta’s first action was to kick it towards England’s left-back position. However, Fikayo Tomori, who is not a left-back, managed to successfully intercept this time. Malta then gained possession and quickly advanced towards the goal. A powerful shot from Teddy Teuma narrowly missed, and 30 years after conceding a goal within eight seconds to San Marino, England narrowly avoided another potential generational upset against a lesser-known international team.
This is becoming a recurring issue for England. If you look at every major opportunity or goal they have conceded since the last World Cup, the vast majority of them have originated from their left side. After England’s 2-0 win, Gareth Southgate tried to alleviate some pressure from Tomori, who did not perform well in a position he is not used to playing at his club. “We have asked players like Fikayo to play roles that are not their usual position,” he stated. “It’s not easy for him to adapt to that side. We are facing difficulties with availability in that area, and we are trying to give some players a break.”
Unfortunately, Southgate has had a string of bad luck with the players on the left side of the pitch. Luke Shaw has been absent for nearly three months due to an unknown muscle injury, and Chilwell’s recurring hamstring problems have kept him sidelined since late September. It may seem logical to believe that once both players are fully recovered, England’s issues will disappear. However, solely focusing on the individuals overlooks the bigger problem – regardless of who is playing on the left, England seems less confident in their defense on that side.
To gain a better understanding, let’s examine the opposing approach. In recent times, Southgate has preferred to have Kyle Walker and Phil Foden on the right side, who have been longtime teammates at their club. Their qualities complement each other with their left and right feet, aggressive pressing, and impressive speed in recovering. They also have the ability to drift inside and utilize overlapping runs. The key factor in their success is their established connection, which was evident when Walker replaced Trippier at right-back and England’s attack became more potent against Malta.
England’s most similar left-sided duo is Shaw and Rashford, who are both members of Manchester United. However, due to Shaw’s injury and Rashford’s poor performance, manager Southgate has had to experiment with other options. Shaw and Grealish have different paces on the field, while Trippier and Rashford seem too confined. Chilwell and Maddison may be too focused on attacking to be considered against tougher opponents. Despite this, these pairings have only had one game to establish their chemistry.
One challenge in this situation is Maguire. Maguire is a member of the English national team as a left-sided center-back, but he no longer plays in the same position for United under Erik ten Hag. Ten Hag commented last season that the angles are not ideal for Maguire when playing on the left side and it is also challenging for him to defend in wide areas using his left foot. Additionally, due to Maguire’s preference of using his right foot while in possession, England’s left side often lacks quick service, hindering their ability to launch attacks.
These are problems that extend beyond physical injuries or specific players, and it is not a new issue for England to have a vulnerable left side. Looking at the bigger picture, England has either won or tied all of their previous games mentioned. However, in tournament football, even small flaws can be exposed and exploited by top teams. When a minor flaw becomes a consistent weakness, it becomes an opportunity for lower-ranked teams like Malta (ranked 171st in the world) to take advantage of.