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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Kieran Trippier looks the odd man out in Gareth Southgate's transformative England

The Tottenham right-back was a creation of one system at the World Cup and may suffer from a switch to another after England's win over Croatia in the Nations League

Kieran Trippier created more chances than any other player at the 2018 World Cup in Russia and also scored England's goal in a 2-1 semi-final defeat to Croatia. EPA
Kieran Trippier created more chances than any other player at the 2018 World Cup in Russia and also scored England's goal in a 2-1 semi-final defeat to Croatia. EPA

If the script had a certain familiarity, some of the faces were different. So, crucially, was the outcome. There was something recognisable in a full-back standing over a set-piece. It was Kieran Trippier’s signature in the World Cup. On Sunday, however, Ben Chilwell took the decisive free kick. It was touched in by Harry Kane. This time Croatia were beaten. England reached a second semi-final in a year.

It is worth rewinding a few months. Chilwell was perhaps the fourth-choice left-back, a footnote in the conversation when Ryan Bertrand was unfortunate not to make the squad for Russia. Now, after prodigious performances against Spain and Croatia, the Leicester City man looks the best option. But for injury, Joe Gomez would probably have gone to the World Cup, but as a back-up. Now he seems so assured that, if the comparisons with Bobby Moore entail plenty of hyperbole, it is tempting to wonder if the talismanic Harry Maguire is an automatic pick anymore.

Go back to June and there was no outcry about Jadon Sancho’s exclusion. His debut season with Borussia Dortmund had produced seven starts and one goal. Now he was one of those summoned when England required two goals to progress in the Uefa Nations League. Super-sub is pressing his case to be a starter.

Each is an indication of the rapid pace of change. If 2018 has been a transformative year for England, there is the sense that they did not remain frozen in time in the World Cup. The 3-3-2-2 formation that was a revelation then has been jettisoned for 4-3-3. They have become bolder and better. England had a minority of possession against Croatia in Moscow and a majority at Wembley. They have incorporated an extra attacker in a way that reflects the burgeoning talents of Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and Sancho.

Ben Chilwell impressed at left-back in England's recent wins over the United States and Croatia. Reuters
Ben Chilwell impressed at left-back in England's recent wins over the United States and Croatia. Reuters

Others are coming up behind by them. Those, such as Brendan Rodgers and Jurgen Klopp, who have long insisted that England produces talented players are being vindicated. Southgate has championed footballers from the junior ranks. If they have learnt, so has he. One of Southgate’s shortcomings in the World Cup was that his substitutions sometimes made too little impact. It is harder to level that criticism now; not after Jesse Lingard’s game-changing contribution against Croatia.

If he has been both meritocrat and revolutionary, England have changed beyond recognition; in personnel, results and, with the current feelgood factor, mood. In a national team known for underachievement, Southgate has shown it is possible for players to over-perform in an England kit.

Which brings us back to Trippier. A groin injury kept the Tottenham Hotspur man out of Sunday’s rematch with Croatia and perhaps obscured how remarkable it was that a footballer who had only made a handful of top-flight appearances before his 24th birthday and who, 15 months earlier, seemed a reserve for Tottenham, joined an elite club of three with the England greats Bobby Charlton and Gary Lineker by scoring in a World Cup semi-final.

It feels slightly surreal that Trippier created more chances than anyone else in Russia. He was perhaps the first Englishman since 1990 who belonged in a World Cup select XI. Trippier was emblematic in England’s improbable rise. Perhaps, in a different way, he is of their subsequent progress, too.

Kieran Trippier faces competition from the likes of Kyle Walker, right, and Trent Alexander-Arnold for England's right-back berth. EPA
Kieran Trippier faces competition from the likes of Kyle Walker, right, and Trent Alexander-Arnold for England's right-back berth. EPA

He was a creation of one system and may suffer from a switch to another. The use of a back three suited a natural wing-back, a terrific crosser who could thus be deployed further forward. He was thrust into the role of set-piece specialist, taking the corners that allowed England to display their NBA-influenced routines in the penalty box.

Yet Trent Alexander-Arnold and Chilwell have been on dead-ball duties in the last week. The reversion to a back four has put Trippier back into competition with his old Tottenham teammate Kyle Walker. The prodigy Alexander-Arnold was outstanding in Thursday’s win over the United States.

If Trippier’s World Cup has the potential to look a brilliant anomaly in an admirable but otherwise unexceptional career, he reflects Southgate’s England. In the right environment, players can reach unexpected heights and they tend to be heart-warming tales about unassuming characters. But they still risk being swept aside in the perpetual quest for improvement.

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