Dunk, Konsa, Gomez & Guéhi - investigating the battle to play in England's defence at Euro 2024

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With the final England squad decided, who should play in defence alongside John Stones at Euro 2024?

You’d have to scour the country pretty thoroughly to find anyone who fully agreed with every decision Gareth Southgate made as he whittled his England training squad down to a final 26, but that’s the nature of the beast. When it comes down to it, few of his decisions were inherently surprising or controversial, and the quality of the squad is remarkably high – but there’s still one big question which remains unanswered: who will partner John Stones in central defence?

Had everything gone according to plan, it would have been Harry Maguire, but he failed to recover from the calf injury that he sustained towards the end of the season with Manchester United and will, as such, be stuck watching from the sidelines. Maguire has always been a divisive figure and his club form has waxed and waned to extremes in recent years, but he has seldom been anything other than a reliable performer for England. His absence is a blow for the manager, and leaves him with a big decision to make.

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Based on recent selections, it will likely be Brighton & Hove Albion’s Lewis Dunk or Crystal Palace’s Marc Guéhi who take that spot – a club-level rivalry played out in a selection battle which could greatly affect England’s chances of success in Germany. There are alternatives, however, in the shape of Ezri Konsa and Joe Gomez, but in dispensing with Jarrad Branthwaite during a day of cuts, Southgate has made his preferences clear enough.

Branthwaite’s form for Everton has been exceptional this season – he was one of the standout young players in a Premier League season largely defined by youthful brio and the excellence of the new generation. But while his towering presence was crucial to Everton’s successful attempt to avoid relegation, his skill set is limited in some ways – critically, in his distribution, technique and comfort handling passing moves under pressure.

Branthwaite’s confidence with the ball at his feet improved markedly over the course of the season, but it would still be a reach to suggest that he fits a system which prioritises passing the ball out from the back under pressure better than some of his rivals for a space in the final squad. In cutting Branthwaite, Southgate has told us that he wants a ball-player, not necessarily a classical defender.

That may well favour Dunk, who is an exceptional passer whose skill at guiding play out from the back was honed in Roberto de Zerbi’s demanding defensive strategy at the Amex Stadium. Over the course of the last season, Dunk average 102 passes per game, and managed a conversion rate of 92%. By any standards, that is highly impressive.

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The problem, of course, is that Dunk also has a mistake in him. He was culpable for Brazil’s goal in the 1-0 defeat at Wembley, stepping out of the line to head the ball straight to the feet of Andreas Pereira, simultaneously conceding possession and creating the space in behind for Vinícius Junior and Endrick to sprint free and score. He also gave the ball away to create clear goal-scoring opportunities in friendlies against Scotland and Belgium. In the course of his six caps so far, the 32-year-old has not cut an entirely convincing figure despite his obvious quality.

Guéhi, on the other hand, is a different type of defender again. He’s a solid passer but not quite as accurate as Dunk, but his superb positioning and reading of the game, combined with an impressive physical presence, means he is outstanding at shutting down passing and shooting angles while often marking opposing strikers out of the game. He is a startlingly intelligent defender and could well be one of England’s best already at the age of 23.

But to put daylight between himself and Dunk, he also needs to ensure he offers the calming presence that the Brighton man might not – and his cause will not have been helped by the friendly against Bosnia & Herzegovina. The Bosnians didn’t put a great deal of pressure on either player over the course of a game in which they showed very little adventure, but Guéhi still made two mistakes, a wayward header back to his goalkeeper which he had to collect himself and a clumsy late challenge which saw him enter the book.

Then there are the wildcards – Konsa and Gomez. Konsa has been deployed primarily at right-back in an England shirt, but played more games in the centre for Aston Villa this season than he did at full-back, and is another excellent passer of the ball who is also better than Dunk when it comes to carrying the ball out from the back and beating a man. Where he falls down is in his last-ditch defensive work and his lack of aerial presence – another area in which the 6’3” Dunk has an edge.

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Gomez, meanwhile, is the jack-of-all-trades who has likely been included more as a utility man than as a first choice player in any given position. Gomez is a fine all-round defender who generates plenty of turnovers, but there are few areas in which he has an edge over the competition. He’s a good passer and is solid in the air, but less so than Dunk. He is an excellent tackler, but can’t match Guéhi’s positional sense. Realistically, this is likely to be a two-way battle between Dunk and Guéhi, and their respective performances against Iceland on Friday could be decisive. On paper, it’s a tough call to make - two very different defenders, one with immense talent and the other which considerably more experience.


The chart above shows how they break down against each other in terms of key statistics from last season’s performances at club level, but all it truly proves is that centre-back is a position that resists simple analysis. Guéhi, for example, doesn’t have especially stellar numbers on paper, but much of his game is about preventing the ball from getting to his man in the first place, and he’s good enough at doing that that he doesn’t register a vast number of tackles.

But for all that Dunk has failed to convince many England fans, he undeniably comes up trumps in several key areas. Progressive passes, incidentally, are considered to be accurate passes which get the ball forward at least 10 yards or into the opposing penalty area, and are a good indicator of how effective a player is at breaking the line and advancing an attacking move. A caveat on Gomez’s statistics is that as he mostly played as a full-back, his aerial duels sample size is small and he was in position to make attacking, ‘progressive’ passes more often than some of his counterparts. These give a flavour of the players’ respective skill sets compared to each other, but are far from definitive measure of which players are better - they certainly help to build a case for Dunk over Guéhi, however.

Every fan watching will have their preferences, many will lament the loss of Branthwaite, others will be confused over the initial omission of players like Levi Colwill and Fikayo Tomori. But Southgate is the one who sees these players day in, day out during training sessions, and he knows his own mind – a mind which has proven more effective than that of any other England manager since Sir Alf Ramsey. Whichever way he goes, England fans can only agree to hope that he is proven right once more.

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