England’s soft centre remains Gareth Southgate’s biggest headache

There is always room for improvement. The mood in the England camp is high after their 6-2 victory over Iran on Monday, but nobody is resting on their laurels. There is an awareness that sterner tests lie in wait, starting with Friday’s meeting with a speedy and inventive USA side, and much of the focus this week has been on correcting the defensive sloppiness that gifted Iran two second-half goals at the Khalifa International Stadium.

That dip in concentration has been on Gareth Southgate’s mind. It was a reminder not to get carried away during this tournament of shocks and it gave weight to the idea that the biggest impediment to England’s chances of winning the World Cup is their defence.

That England kept five clean sheets during Euro 2020 has been forgotten. The worries over Harry Maguire’s struggles for Manchester United have not been fully allayed by his performance against Iran. There was a flicker of concern when the United centre-back lost Mehdi Taremi before the Iran striker fired his first goal past Jordan Pickford, who was angry at being denied a clean sheet, and it remains to be seen whether Southgate trusts Maguire and John Stones to flourish in a back four against the very best.

The general consensus is that England’s favoured centre-back pairing have it all to prove. The fear is that Stones and Maguire will not be enough if England come up against France or Brazil during the latter stages, convincing Southgate to ditch the 4-3-3 that destroyed Iran and bring Kyle Walker in as a third centre-back.

The debate is ceaseless. On the one hand there is the argument England will not be playing to their strengths if they sacrifice an attacker; on the other it is easy to understand why Southgate tends to feel more comfortable having Walker’s pace as an insurance policy against the top sides.

“It’s good that we are versatile and able to go from a four to a five,” Stones said. “Our thought process with that is: ‘How are the opposition going to set up? How are they going to attack, have certain movements and styles of play? How are we going to counteract that and beat that?’ If it’s a four or a five – in the Euros we even switched in games and did it well – whatever system we play, we are comfortable.”

All of which was very on-message. Only, Stones has spent the past six years playing for Manchester City. The 28-year-old can justifiably call himself one of the best defenders in Europe, has won four Premier League titles and can be forgiven for taking issue with the notion England would have to retreat if they face Kylian Mbappé, Neymar and Vinícius Júnior.

Stones said he and Maguire wouldn’t necessarily need to play in a back three against Brazil and France. “But if we come up against those teams it would be down to the manager and us having to adapt to a new system because of the qualities they bring to the game and how we can counteract that.”

All the same England have kept two clean sheets in 2022. There can not be a repeat of the unfocused end to the Iran game when they face the US, who have a fast and tricky attack.

“It was annoying,” Stones said. “I’m frustrated with myself because of how well we’ve done in previous tournaments with keeping clean sheets and being solid. We’ve gone over the footage and will again just to refresh my mind. The overriding feeling was what we did was amazing and those small details that led up to those goals, we just need to brush up on.”

One concern for Stones is how VAR is operating. He remains baffled he gave away a penalty against Iran for a slight tug of Morteza Pouraliganji’s shirt. The frustration was compounded by the failure of the officials to award Stones and Maguire spot-kicks when they were hauled over earlier.

“I know Harry got highlighted in that first instance but I’m not one for going down and I was straight up appealing for a penalty,” Stones said. “I didn’t even realise Harry had been having the same thing. Looking at it, I’m a bit baffled nothing had been called and then was for something that, in my opinion, was never, ever, ever a penalty.

“I’m not one for conceding silly fouls and I don’t believe that with the amount of jostling that goes on in a box, a little pull of the shirt makes someone’s knees buckle and go over. There has got to be consistency to it and that’s where everyone’s frustration is.”

England will need to be careful defending set pieces. “We know what we’ve got to do right and we know we risk being punished for certain things,” Southgate said. “For all the teams in the tournament there is a worry when you’re not quite sure what’s going to be given.”

The quest for perfection is on. “I think I can always be better,” Stones said. “But football is a difficult game and I don’t think you’ll go through one without making mistakes sometimes. It’s striving for perfection, which I don’t think will ever be achieved. But that’s the goal.”