Gareth Southgate has dropped a strong hint that Kyle Walker will be fundamental to England’s World Cup campaign, praising the Manchester City defender’s leadership qualities and emphasising his influence.
Walker has 67 caps and, at 32, is perhaps nearing the winter of his international career. He can operate on the right of a defensive three but faces competition from Reece James, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Kieran Trippier at right-back if Southgate goes with his preference of a back four in Qatar. The manager was asked about leaders within his squad and, unprompted, spoke of Walker in terms that suggested he will be hard to dislodge from any starting XI.
“You notice players maturing,” he said. “For example Kyle Walker, who isn’t captain of his club but is such a man within the group, on the pitch, off the pitch and I think he’s matured a lot over the last two or three years. He’s won the league four times so he’s got confidence from what he’s done as a player. He’s been in a World Cup semi-final with us and a European final, so he’s got a lot of big-match experience.”
Although his competitors are up to a decade younger, Walker’s speed and athleticism have not waned. He was England’s most impressive starter in last week’s draw against Germany, playing at right-back, and Southgate pinpointed a moment from that night as an example of his qualities.
“He doesn’t have to be really vocal but [it’s] his manner, his determination in the way he works,” he said. “There was a chance Germany had where Trippier got up at the far post and defended it really well but if you look at Walker, his desire to stop the cross, it means the guy’s got to loft it rather than just be able to whip it in.
“They are little things that the majority of the stadium probably don’t give a second thought, but when you are looking at what wins football matches they are the things that win football matches. That hunger, that drive, he brings that; and he brings that on the training pitch.”
Walker is likely to return to the lineup for Tuesday night’s rematch with Hungary, who beat England in Budapest this month, at Molineux. Given England are winless from their past three games and without a goal from open play there would appear an added element of pressure, even before their position at the bottom of National League group A3 is accounted for. Relegation from the competition’s top tier would mean they risk a tougher qualifying group for Euro 2024 but Southgate emphasised the short-term issue of managing his players’ health had to be the priority in a gruelling schedule.
“That [relegation]is another consideration within everything but it’s not primary to me,” he said. “What I don’t want to do is put a team out, and we end up with a serious injury, and we’ve lost a player for the World Cup because I’ve put them in at the wrong time.”
Southgate feels that, while England have spluttered in the past 10 days, most of their rivals for the World Cup are in the same boat. “I don’t think anyone around Europe is in that position where they will be really happy and thinking they are the standout favourites,” he said.