As Ashley Cole slowly put the brakes on an excellent England career, Roy Hodgson increasingly struggled to find any real quality in the fullback areas. It’s a problem his (sort of) successor, Gareth Southgate, is yet to come across. In fact, quite the opposite.
The England manager has not held back when complimenting his now ludicrously long list of international-quality right-backs. But who is the best?
The most employed under Southgate is Kyle Walker, a graduate of the Sheffield United academy that also produced Harry Maguire. He joined their youth system way back in 1997. There was always a hotly held debate in Yorkshire as to which was the better Kyle in the right-back spot at United’s academy – Walker or Naughton. He eventually used his enviable pace and power to fend off the competition, becoming not just the best right-back called Kyle, but the best right-back in the country.
Walker was a shining light in the catastrophic Euro 2016 campaign, before putting in some good and some less good displays as a converted centre-back in a three-man back-line at the 2018 World Cup. Pep Guardiola has persevered with him at right-back though, where he has continued to put his athleticism to good use this season – he’s successfully seen off the competition from Portuguese international João Cancelo, who now looks like he may be on the way out of City as a result. Three international breaks have passed by since Walker was last called-up though, and, as the likes of Ryan Bertrand or Ashley Young would know, that spells trouble for his England career.
A seasoned professional. Plenty of experience. Still rapid.
Trent Alexander-Arnold stands as the hands-down favourite in this one. Only Jadon Sancho has assisted more times than the 21-year-old in Europe’s top five leagues since the start of last season. Liverpool’s fans’ favourite, because he’s “one of our own”, the defender has already scored a quite brilliant goal for England (against the United States in 2018), something Walker hasn’t managed, and semi-regularly finds the back of the net in the Premier League, often thanks to his finely struck direct free kicks.
In one year as an England U19, he scored seven goals in just ten games. That shows the attacking intent that he possesses, with many pundits including Gary Lineker and Jamie Carragher suggesting his talents may be better deployed further up-field. Carragher even likened his passing range to that of Kevin De Bruyne – high praise for such a young player. But a player as talented as Alexander-Arnold should expect such comparisons.
However, his defensive solidity has been called into question a number of times. For England, Alexander-Arnold is yet to put in an inspirational display, or anything like the 90-minute brilliance we see from him at Liverpool. In his last international, he crossed the ball six times, failing to find his man with every single one.
Incredibly exciting. Already world-class. Yet to truly perform for his country.
Defensively, England may find themselves lacking if they employ Trent Alexander-Arnold. Not with Aaron Wan-Bissaka. It is incredible to think that the Manchester United right-back remains uncapped at senior international level. Thrust into the big-time when Hodgson and Crystal Palace had an injury crisis at right-back, Wan-Bissaka quickly changed his allegiance from DR Congo to the country of his birth – England – when it became clear the youth setup at St George’s Park were keeping a close eye on his speedy progress.
Wan-Bissaka epitomises what an old-fashioned fullback used to do – getting close to the attacker, nicking (or sliding in to win) the ball, and then either playing the appropriate pass or shunting the ball high into the stands. Injury meant he had to return to Manchester United having been called-up by Southgate in September. His time will come and, on his performances for the Red Devils this season, it ought to be sooner rather than later.
Dependable, with plenty of time to improve. Despite his age, a safe bet.
Joining Gary Lineker and Bobby Charlton in an exclusive list of three players to have scored for England in World Cup semi-finals would ordinarily cement your place in the England team for at least another two years. But in these highly competitive times on the right flank, Kieran Trippier has not enjoyed any such free pass into the Starting XI. Going further, he failed to even make the squad for the Three Lions’ Nations League campaign last summer.
Trippier scored a stunning Croatia-like free kick against Fulham on only the second day of last season’s Premier League campaign, but things slowed down and he endured a tough year at Spurs. He moved abroad to work with Diego Simeone at Atlético Madrid, who he has recently described as the best manager in the world. Trippier’s defending has improved, and his good form got him back in the England squads for all three of the autumn international breaks.
A quality crosser and a hard worker. May just be edged out this time though.
The wildcard option is Reece James. Another of this very lucky generation from Chelsea’s academy, being given genuine trust by manager Frank Lampard, James has already scored in the Champions League and assisted twice so far in his first season as a Premier League player. The rise of this technical, talented 20-year-old will have come as no surprise to his coaches, but to the rest of the football world it’s been an impressively short journey to prominence.
On close inspection, James possesses the defensive hunger of Wan-Bissaka, the strength of Walker, the free kick accuracy of Trippier and the crossing of Alexander-Arnold.
Euro 2020 is likely to come too early for Reece James to squeeze his way into England’s most competitive position, but he’s one for the future. This young man is a very exciting prospect indeed.
Those are the five men battling it out to make it to the European Championships as part of Gareth Southgate’s 23-man squad. Only two or three of them will make it in.
But there is one last candidate to look at, in the hunt for England’s best fullback – Ben Chilwell. Ashley Young, Danny Rose and Luke Shaw have all fallen out of favour on the international stage, because of Leicester’s Chilwell and his growth as one of the Premier League’s best left-backs. Ever since making his England debut at his club ground, the King Power Stadium, Chilwell has slowly established himself as the Three Lions’ best and most consistent left-back.
He has already amassed eight assists for club and country this season, three of which came in the first half of England’s 1000th international, when they beat Montenegro 7-0. Chilwell broke through at Leicester City as a defensively astute fullback. Since then, he has added attacking prowess, showcasing plenty of lengthy, bursting runs forward in recent months. Chelsea and Manchester United are both interested in signing him as January’s transfer deadline looms.
Potentially more talented players have been mentioned above, but Chilwell has been just about as consistent and accomplished as any of them over the past year. His England form particularly has been inspiring for fans to watch.
The search for England’s best fullback seemed destined to end on the right. But stranger things have happened; Ben Chilwell, frankly unchallenged as England’s best left-back, may well be the side’s best fullback altogether at this moment in time. It is hard to pick holes in the 23-year-old’s recent form.
England’s Recent Tournament Fullbacks
(Featured players are italicised)
2016 European Championships – Kyle Walker (RB), Danny Rose (LB)
2018 World Cup – Kieran Trippier (RWB), Ashley Young (LWB)
2019 Nations League Finals – Kyle Walker (RB), Ben Chilwell (LB)
2020 European Championships – ?
Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier have shown off their talents with excellent displays at major tournaments. Trent Alexander-Arnold, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Reece James are likely to follow suit, either at Euro 2020 or beyond. As things stand though, Ben Chilwell is a mainstay in the England set-up, and the thought of him linking up on England’s left with Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford or Jadon Sancho is a mouth-watering prospect.
Chilwell is flying the flag for the left-footers, and he’s got the tallest flag of all.