England's defeat to Brazil implied that Man Utd's Harry Maguire is still a problem for Gareth Southgate

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England's defensive issues were highlighted by Brazil at Wembley - and Gareth Southgate must find a way to defend direct passes.

Usually, when England lose, it’s the end of the world, at least on the back pages and on social media. Mercifully, the response to their 1-0 defeat to Brazil at Wembley has been rather more measured – it was a disappointing result, but not disastrous. An indifferent performance with key players absent, but nothing to panic about. Gareth Southgate seemed happy enough. Doom and gloom has not descended.

But Saturday’s match still demonstrated a major weakness that the head coach will have to address in some way before Euro 2024 gets underway. For all that England went toe-to-toe with the Seleçao across the field, they were undone by direct balls over the top time and time again, and were it not for some fine saves by Jordan Pickford and some distinctly iffy finishing from the Brazilian front line the scoreline would have been rather more lopsided.

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One can make an educated guess as to which of the defenders will get the most negative attention. Poor old Harry Maguire, who seemingly cannot get through 90 minutes of football without something, somewhere going wrong. On this occasion, an awful touch when dealing with a second ball from a deep pass let Raphinha in only for the former Leeds United man to drag his shot wide of the far post.

But while the Manchester United man dropped one of his concerningly characteristic clangers, at least he wasn’t the only one. Kyle Walker, normally so fast and so good at coping with quick balls over the top, was left trailing helplessly in Vinícius Junior’s wake early in the game after another ball over the top – and when he got back to clean up after a weak finish had trickled tamely past Pickford, he contrived to smack the ball straight into the back of a team-mate’s head despite the total absence of pressure. Of course, that team-mate was Maguire, a one-man magnet for calamity whether it’s of his own making or not.

But the real issue isn’t the sloppy individual mistakes, of which there were a few (especially if you include Ben Chilwell’s spectacularly wild attempts at scoring a goal from 20 yards or more), but the defensive line as a whole and how poorly it dealt with simple straight balls down the middle. Brazil found a soft spot on England’s underbelly, and they scratched at it all night. One imagines that future opponents will take note.

Teen dream Endrick’s winning goal highlighted the problem, too. Lewis Dunk stepped out of the line to make a header which fell straight to Andreas Pereira. The Fulham man played a ball over the top, and the space in front of Vinícius Junior stretched ahead for miles. John Stones was unable to recover and Declan Rice, filling in at left-back, failed to anticipate Endrick’s supporting run. Both were left chasing shadows as the two forwards combined with England’s defence flailing away in the rear-view mirror.

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England’s first-choice back line is not – Walker aside – blessed with express pace. Stones is quick enough, but not so rapid that he can win a race against the quicker forwards in the world when they’ve been given a head start. Maguire, for his part, is positively lumbering by the standards of Brazil’s strikers, and it’s not a coincidence that the minor renaissance he’s enjoyed at United this season has come after Erik ten Hag moved to a deeper defensive line.

Southgate could do the same, of course, and shift his defenders back a few yards, but then England’s midfielders are generally at their best in a more condensed space, especially out of possession where they form an energetic and effective pressing unit when the pitch is narrowed. Something has to give, however – the thought of Maguire and Stones trying to cope with balls over the top to a player like Kylian Mbappé with the European Championship on the line is not one which will fill anybody in an overpriced England replica kit with confidence.

Perhaps the best remedy is simply to play a defender with more pace and more spatial awareness than Maguire. The generously-foreheaded centre-half is excellent in the air and good at marking men around a crowded six-yard box, but the more stretched the play and the more space he has to cover, the more his vulnerabilities come to the fore.

Both Marc Guéhi and Levi Colwill, young defenders who have established themselves in Southgate’s thinking already, have both that extra bit of zip across the turf and the anticipation to track runs in behind and deal with threats. If Southgate wants to play a relatively high line, as he is probably right to, then he must make sure he has the right defenders to make it work. Based on the evidence of Saturday night, a centre-back pairing of Stones and Maguire isn’t it.

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Hopefully this doesn’t smack of another round of the deeply unkind Maguire-bashing that has become such a popular pastime in recent years. Maguire has done very well indeed to battle his way back to form while the brickbats pound down upon him. He has demonstrated remarkable fortitude and reminded us that he has many sterling qualities as a centre-half – but he also has inherent weaknesses, and they line up worryingly with England’s as a whole. He has earned the right to be on the flight to Germany, but there is a good argument that he shouldn’t be in the starting side to face Serbia in June.

Aside from fretting over the defensive line, England played pretty well. Not brilliantly, but they battled and scrapped and stayed compact and organised. They edged possession, just, and created as many openings as Brazil did, albeit that England’s weren’t as clear-cut. Pickford was excellent, which bodes well.

They missed Harry Kane, certainly, and Ollie Watkins didn’t present a particularly strong case to be selected ahead of Ivan Toney. They could have been more adventurous and incisive in the final third, but then that’s easier said than done without the Bayern Munich man’s movement and playmaking skills. With Watkins playing as high as possible, Jude Bellingham wasn’t able to make those taxing runs in behind the striker which cause so many problems for defenders. There were plenty of data points for Southgate to ponder, plenty of little lessons to learn. But the only real alarm bell being rung at Wembley was at the back. When it comes to the crunch, England can’t make it as simple for their opponents as knocking passes over the top until something snaps.

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