At this rate Gareth Southgate is going to have to bow to public pressure and stuff his team with attackers when England face Iran in their opening game at the World Cup next month.
The defensive concerns are mounting for England’s manager. If the possibility of John Stones returning from the hamstring injury that forced him off against Germany last month is a positive, then it is counteracted by Harry Maguire’s exile from Manchester United’s starting XI and Kyle Walker undergoing groin surgery last week. Even someone with Walker’s recovery speed will find it hard to win the race to be fit for Qatar and, given there is no guarantee Stones will not break down again, it means there are doubts over every member of Southgate’s ideal back-three.
No pressure, then, Eric Dier. The Tottenham centre-back has enjoyed an impressive return to form under Antonio Conte and currently looks certain to start in the middle of the back-three against Iran.
The problems, though, have continued to pile up for Southgate this week. First came Gabriel Martinelli tormenting Trent Alexander-Arnold before the Liverpool right-back departed with an ankle injury during his team’s defeat by Arsenal last Sunday; then, at San Siro on Tuesday, there was the sight of Reece James going off with a knee injury during Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Milan, whose hopes of regaining control of their Champions League group were squashed by Fikayo Tomori being sent off in the 18th minute.
While Graham Potter sounded optimistic about James – it is understood that the right wing-back, who is making himself undroppable for club and country, will not be out for long – the mood around Tomori was gloomier. The defender’s evening was not supposed to end in such rancour and disappointment. Tomori had a point to prove against his old team, especially after failing to impress when Milan lost 3-0 at Stamford Bridge last week, and the general view was that he was unfortunate to be dismissed for a soft foul on Mason Mount after James sent the midfielder through on goal.
While Graham Potter sounded optimistic about James – it is understood that the right wing-back, who is making himself undroppable for club and country, will not be out for long – the mood around Tomori was gloomier
Did the punishment fit the crime? Daniel Siebert was right to award a penalty, but did he have to give a red? The contact was minimal and many people felt Tomori deserved a caution.
Equally, Tomori’s made no genuine attempt to play the ball and it was possible to understand why the referee felt the 24-year-old had denied Mount an obvious goalscoring opportunity.
Using that cold logic, it becomes harder to see Southgate trusting Tomori. He is likely to look past the debate over the red and focus on the defensive frailties. He will analyse how Mount got the wrong side of Tomori, who made matters worse by panicking as he tried to stop his fellow Chelsea academy graduate from shooting. Southgate will surely conclude Tomori is not ready for a place in England’s starting XI.
Southgate has never been convinced about Tomori. He did not bow to the clamour to pick him instead of Maguire as the left-sided centre-back during England’s Nations League matches against Italy and Germany. Tomori was not given a minute, even though Maguire’s struggles continued against Germany, and his difficulties against Chelsea will even leave him at risk of not making the squad.
While that may sound drastic, there was an acceptance Tomori needed to shine during Milan’s double-header against Chelsea. Impressing in Serie A is one thing, but Chelsea are a step up on anything Tomori faces in Italy. It is not insular for Southgate to place more importance on performances from defenders playing in the Premier League. The quality of the opposition is higher and the pace quicker.
Tomori, who has admitted his form has not been up to scratch this season, could not contain Chelsea. He was poor at Stamford Bridge, wilting under an early aerial barrage. He lacked composure and was at fault for Chelsea’s second goal, his failure to cut out a cross from James allowing the unmarked Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to make it 2-0 from close range.
More was expected from a player who helped Milan win the Scudetto last season. Back on home turf, though, Tomori could not even rely on his pace to get him out of trouble when he allowed Mount to get goalside. The red card was instant and if Tomori does miss out on the World Cup that may well be the moment when Southgate crossed his name off the list.
At the same time Southgate is not blessed with many reliable alternatives to his first-choice defenders. Crystal Palace’s Marc Guéhi is inexperienced and Ben White, who has been impressing at right-back for Arsenal, missed out on the last camp. Given Southgate likes to pick those he trusts, do not rule out a recall for Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings, Maguire’s deputy at Euro 2020.
Compromises could be required. There is time for injuries to heal before the 26-man squad is named, but the situation at the back is not ideal. So much of England’s approach is about defensive stability. For Southgate, who has repeatedly stressed the importance of balance at international level, uncertainty is something to avoid.