Soccer-Doubts at back offer Southgate excuse to release attacking handbrake

FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - Euro 2024 - England Training - Jena Stadion, Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld, Jena, Germany - June 11, 2024 England manager Gareth Southgate during training REUTERS/John Sibley/File Photo

DUESSELDORF, Germany (Reuters) - The attacking options available to England head coach Gareth Southgate are so rich ahead of their Euro 2024 opener against Serbia on Sunday that grumbling about the team's perceived defensive weaknesses could be regarded as alarmism.

After all, Serbia should be so overworked dealing with a forward line spearheaded by Harry Kane and featuring players such as Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka that attacks of their own will be few and far between.

England, whose bench will also boast an array of offensive weapons, will be expected to sweep past Serbia in Gelsenkirchen and kickstart what many are predicting will be a march to the nation's first tournament triumph for 58 years.

But while Group C, which also features Denmark and Slovenia, should not prove too challenging for Southgate's men his patched-up defence will come under intense scrutiny, especially with far tougher hurdles on the horizon.

An injury to Harry Maguire -- so often the target for criticism -- has left England looking vulnerable in the central defensive area, especially as his usual partner John Stones started only 12 Premier League games for Manchester City last season and has had injury and illness issues in the build-up.

Maguire's likely replacement Marc Guehi has no previous tournament experience and missed three months of Crystal Palace's season with a knee injury.

Southgate's first-choice left back Luke Shaw has not played since mid-February and was regarded as a "long shot" for the opening game despite being selected in the squad.

Newcastle United right back Kieran Trippier could well start as left back for England against the Serbians while Kyle Walker is expected to play at right back, although he could switch to the centre allowing Trent Alexander-Arnold to play there.

Whatever the make-up of Southgate's defence, it is hardly ideal having so many questions to answer at the start of a tournament in which England are expected to deliver.

"My concern is defensively, even if Harry Maguire was in the squad then I would still have one or two concerns. I think he will be a miss in both boxes for and against set pieces," former England striker Alan Shearer told the Daily Mirror.

"Luke Shaw isn't going to be available for the first game or two as well. Defensively there's a worry but going forward and in midfield they are as good as anyone."

Much will depend on how bold Southgate is prepared to be in the coming weeks. Critics say his over-cautious approach, with two defensive shields, has cost England in previous tournaments when releasing the attacking handbrake was required.

With Euro 2024 widely expected to be his final chance to deliver something tangible with arguably the best squad in world soccer, Southgate might just decide to finally throw caution to the wind and let his players off the leash.

Adopting an "attack is the best form of defence" policy would be risky and would go against Southgate's deepest instincts and he will no doubt point to the pragmatic style of play that so often wins tournaments.

But after so many near-misses since he took charge in 2016, the last thing England want is to bow out of another tournament having kept their power dry for too long.

(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Clare Fallon)

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