Why Kieran Trippier at left-back for England is not the tactical problem people think it is

There was a lot wrong with England’s defeat against Iceland.

A defeat against opposition ranked 72nd in the world was as unexpected as it was unacceptable. “I’m not going to dress up the disappointment about the performance,” said Southgate. The England head coach acknowledged that England scoring “might have masked some flaws that that were apparent”.

England had their most crosses in a game under Southgate but only completed five of 39. Harry Kane and Ivan Toney were uncharacteristically wasteful on the few occasions England could deliver a final ball which did not meet an Icelandic blue shirt.

In the end, England had only one shot on target in a game for the first time since 2021. Southgate made no bones about England’s out-of-possession display, after Iceland went back-to-front through a half-hearted England press to score the game’s only goal.

“The major problem was without the ball, which which meant that they (England’s players) got uncomfortable in the game,” said Southgate. “If we’d been better without the ball, I think the rhythm of the game would have been different. We’d have had more sustained attacks”.

By conceding first, they made it three Wembley games in succession — after March friendlies against Belgium and Brazil — where the opposition had gone 1-0 up. The last time that happened was in 1954.

One area which was not really a problem was the one most suspected would be when Southgate announced his final 26-man squad for Euro 2024 on Thursday: left-back.

Manchester United’s Luke Shaw is the only natural option there, but has not played competitive football since February and has a miserably bad injury record. His attack-minded profile and final ball are everything Southgate wants in the position.

Shaw will not start against Serbia next Sunday but is in-line to play a part of the second group-stage game versus Denmark — a la Harry Maguire at Euro 2020. In the meantime, playing a right-footer (and nominal right-back) at left-back has been dressed up in many parts as tactically self-destructive. This is mainly because it can be uncomfortable to watch a player naturally coming inside towards traffic rather than progressing the ball upfield. It slows attacks and detaches them from the winger.

“There isn’t another player like Shaw who can build and come and play off the outside of his foot with that sort of craft,” said Southgate upon announcing his squad. “That player isn’t there. So we have to find a different way. There are very few left-footed left-backs playing. We feel (Kieran) Trippier and (Joe) Gomez have performed as well in those areas or better than the others, even though one or two might be left-footed”.

England are not the same wide-attacking team in Shaw’s absence. The wide combinations down the left are less natural and they create fewer clearer crossing and cutback positions. They naturally funnel attacks to the right. And yet in spite of this, England have been just fine when Trippier has played there. It has become a tactical strawman.

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(Robin Jones/Getty Images)

In fact, Iceland was the first time in 11 games that England have lost with Trippier starting at left-back. That sequence includes seven wins and three draws, never conceding more than once, and includes a plethora of difficult games: away matches against Germany and Scotland. Wins over Italy, twice, Austria and Croatia.

England: Trippier starting at left-back

Opponent Competition Result

Iceland (A)

Nations League, 2020

1-0 win

Denmark (A)

Nations League, 2020

0-0 draw

Belgium (H)

Nations League, 2020

2-1 win

Austria (H)

Friendly, 2021

1-0 win

Croatia (H)

Euro 2020

1-0 win

Andorra (H)

2022 WCQ

4-0 win

Germany (A)

Nations League, 2022

1-1 draw

Italy (H)

Nations League, 2022

0-0 draw

Scotland (A)

Friendly, 2023

3-1 win

Italy (H)

Euro 2024 qualifier

3-1 win

Iceland (H)

Friendly, 2024

1-0 loss

“I think some of the biggest clubs in our league have had to adapt without a natural left-back,” said Southgate. “Some have played midfield players there, some have played centre-backs there. We’re going to have to do something similar. You’ve just got to change the way that you build and work out how you can be as unpredictable with the ball as possible even though you’ve not got a left-footer there”.

Playing a right-footer there does not matter if the winger can carry the attacking burden on their own. In four games of eleven with Trippier at left-back, the left winger has scored: Bukayo Saka against Austria and Andorra, both in 2021; Raheem Sterling versus Croatia, at Euro 2020; Marcus Rashford against Italy in a 2023 European qualifier.

Anthony Gordon is that type of winger, from necessity at Everton but something which is still in his game at Newcastle. England’s best moments in the first half on Friday came when Gordon was released in-behind early. They lacked his profiles elsewhere on the pitch — Harry Kane, Cole Palmer and Phil Foden are all to-feet players, not runners.

If England are to play Trippier at left-back out of necessity then they need to double-down on a creative right-side. That might mean leaving out Kyle Walker, who has a phenomenal athletic profile and valuable experience but does not play the overlapping, crossing role as well as Trent Alexander-Arnold. England’s first-half crossing threat from the right was through Palmer delivering in-swinging, back-post crosses with his left foot.

The introduction of Alexander-Arnold for Walker in the second half meant England were immediately more threatening, quicker at getting in-behind Iceland. A lot of the game had an attack-versus-defence training feel to it because England were overly-cautious in attack. They hit plenty of diagonals from the left to the right but were reluctant to shoot from distance or cross early. Consequently, Iceland bunkered down and were not forced to jump individuals out of the block, which would have opened space elsewhere.

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Alexander-Arnold’s attacking instincts may be required in the group stage (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Southgate was keen to underline the point that England had “physical issues” which forced his hand with starting XI selection and substitutes. It means they have not had “the core of the team” that will start the Euros on the pitch at the same time. Add Jude Bellingham’s creative abilities and England’s left-sided combination play goes up another gear.

As much as Southgate disliked the performance, he said “I know the reasons for it. I can see what we need to do in the next week”. Part of that might involve using Rice in more left-sided rotations to push Trippier upfield, giving greater wide support and manipulating the opposition block to open passing lanes into No 8s and Kane. Aside from that, Southgate’s options are limited.

The biggest wildcard option would be a return to the 3-4-3, with Saka at left-wing back, as England have a plethora of forward options, but it is likely too risky a gamble to try something that tactically and systematically different.

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Could England get Rice involved in more left-sided rotations as he does with Arsenal? (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

It is a problem compounded by the order of England’s group stage games. Serbia and Denmark are up first and they both play back fives — meaning England are even more likely to be forced round the sides, where they would want Shaw’s crossing quality.

Not only was the Iceland game not the Euro 2024 send-off that anyone wanted, but it was also a stark reminder of just how poor England had been at major tournaments prior to Southgate’s arrival. Many fans would have felt wounds from Euro 2016 re-open, when England were knocked out of Euro 2016 by Iceland in the first knockout round. England reaching the semi-finals, final and quarter-finals in the three tournaments since — all under Southgate — is as consistently good as they have ever been.

They have been public about ambitions to win it in 2024, and it might need a patchwork approach in terms of tactics and personnel. Of England’s problems, Trippier at left-back is not a significant one and it might even become a solution in trying to qualify from Group C.

(Header photo: Ryan Pierse – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

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