Newcastle United star may become England's last hope as troubling Euro 2024 headache grows

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With Luke Shaw potentially out of the Euros, who should England look to at left-back?

Gareth Southgate’s experimental jaunt through the international break continues against Belgium on Tuesday, and having already looked at the problems in defence, the debate over who should play in midfield and the battle to back up Harry Kane up front, it’s time to look at the last big question England’s manager has to answer ahead of Euro 2024 – who should play at left-back?

Speaking to the media on Monday, Southgate admitted that Luke Shaw was his first choice – “one of the best left-backs in world football” – but also that the muscle injury which may have ended his season with Manchester United could prove to be a headache this summer.

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“He’s going to be right on the edge of the season. We know now to play seven matches in a Euros is highly unlikely,” Southgate said of the stricken Shaw, and there is now a very valid question over whether he will make the final squad at all.

That leaves Ben Chilwell as the likely replacement in the starting line-up, although the Chelsea man had an up-and-down game against Brazil on Saturday evening which featured several rather wild long-range shots that did little more than add to the shots off target column. He has also had plenty of fitness issues of his own over the last couple of years, and it’s clear that Southgate needs a back-up plan.

Two of the more obvious candidates are, frustratingly, injured as well and are absent from the squad for the friendlies at Wembley. Kieran Trippier has filled in on the left side several times for England, while Chelsea’s Levi Colwill has played well there when Chilwell has been absent. Both are solid options defensively, but neither offer as much going forward as either of the leading contenders for the starting spot.

Then there’s Joe Gomez, who made his first appearance for The Three Lions in four years against Brazil, but who is likewise not a natural left-back even if he deputised well there for Liverpool when Andrew Robertson and Kostas Tsimikas have been out. Rico Lewis, too, is an option, having been promoted from the England Under-21s after the Brazil game, but he is inexperienced and has only played four games for Manchester City since the turn of the year. In any case, his long-term future is more likely as a midfielder, and he has only started one game as a left-sided defender all season, in the Premier League curtain-raiser against Burnley.

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Lots of options, few standout candidates, and once you get past Chilwell and Shaw no out-and-out wing-backs with a respectable left boot. Given that Southgate will certainly want someone who can operate effectively on the outside of the left-sided forward when in possession, it’s rather a head-scratcher.

Trippier is probably in pole position. 11 of his 46 caps have come as a stop-gap left-back, most recently in the 3-1 win over Italy in October. He has just one assist and no goals in those games, however, and has played just one domestic game as a left-back in his entire career, according to Transfermarkt – an EFL Cup game for Tottenham Hotspur back in 2017. It is a position in which he provides competent support, but he is too right-footed to offer a threat on the overlap, and England’s left wing options are overwhelmingly players who prefer to cut inside.

Colwill is the only one of the likely options who is naturally left-footed. A poorly-timed toe injury is keeping him out of these friendlies, which is deeply unfortunate timing both for him and for Southgate, who played him at left-back in the 1-0 friendly win over Australia last year.

Unfortunately, he is far more defender than he is attacker. He has one assist and one goal for Chelsea playing on the left this season and has performed admirably, but for all that he’s very tidy on the ball he doesn’t generate an overwhelming volume of chances. His expected assists for the season total up to 0.53, and he has not attempted a single cross. Hardly the stuff of which effective overlaps are made. He would, at least, be a fine option when it comes to keeping the opponent at bay.

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The same is true of Gomez. He has similar numbers to Colwill going forward and position maps show that he almost never gets to the byline on the overlap – instead, he stops and cuts inside around the edge of the final third when coming forward. There is simply not enough data for Lewis, whose sole England cap against North Macedonia came as a left-back, but who has only played there three times for his club.

The worrying fact is that there seems to be no good option. Someone will have to play against type in order to thrive in that role. Most likely, Trippier will go to Germany as he will offer an option down both flanks, while Colwill may make the squad as a centre-half in his own right. Southgate would at least then have the chance to try the latter out again in the pre-tournament friendlies against Bosnia & Herzegovina and Iceland.

The hope is that this is all a lot of fretting about nothing – that Shaw will be fit enough to play a fulsome part and that Chilwell will be fine to take over if the Manchester United man doesn’t make it. But a contingency plan is required, and it’s fair to question whether Trippier is good enough as a left-back, on his current form, to be the right answer.

Southgate will have the chance to try out Lewis or Gomez on Tuesday evening, and likely will give some more minutes to at least one, if only to see how it goes. Let’s just hope that if we don’t like what we see, that it doesn’t come up by the time we get to Germany.

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