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John Stones and Gary Cahill construct a case for the England defence

first_imgWorld Cup Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email. “It’s not a difficult situation but it’s a strange one,” the Manchester City defender said. “I’ve worked my whole life to go to a World Cup as a right-back. I was a little bit surprised. It was something new. I played there at Sheffield United a couple of times when I was breaking through. But I’m a team player.”Adapting to a new position is far from straightforward. Cahill said: “When Antonio first changed it at Chelsea it was strange because I’d been a right-sided centre-half all my career and I moved over to the left, where you’re almost between the centre-half and the left-back. But you learn what each manager wants from you and, if you’re a good player, you can adapt. It doesn’t happen overnight but you can suss it out after two or three weeks.” Read more Share on Twitter Belief in the camp is high and, while England faced moderate opposition during qualification, a run in which they have conceded three goals in their past 10 matches includes clean sheets against Brazil and Germany last November.“The amount of top teams that we’ve stopped from scoring speaks for itself,” John Stones said. “Maybe people need to do a bit more research and stop judging us too much. The teams that win things have the best clean sheets record and concede the fewest goals and that’s a target for us.”There is no defender of the stature of Rio Ferdinand or John Terry in this squad but a manager’s job is to find a system to suit the players at his disposal and Southgate’s switch to a 3-3-2-2 formation has been met with a positive reaction.“It gives us security at the back,” Kyle Walker said. “I don’t think we’re going to leak too many goals, touch wood. We’re dangerous on the break. We have pace to burn.”Gary Cahill, who forced his way back into the squad after a strong end to the season, is well placed to speak about playing in a back three after two years playing for Antonio Conte. The Chelsea defender focused on the system’s flexibility, pointing out that Southgate can flip to a back five when he wants to close a game down, and he explained how it enables attackers to express themselves.“It’s allowed us to give our more attacking players more freedom,” the 32-year-old said. “We get more width in the game and can push players on. Depending on the state of the game it can be a three or a five. If it’s a three, you’re committing two wing-backs higher up the pitch to join in with the strikers and midfielders. If you’re winning, you can make it a five. It allows you to adapt.“Sometimes in the past, we’ve had moments in games, especially against teams that people expect you to beat, where they sit back and it becomes difficult to break that down. Width is a great tool for that. We’ve faced that in the Premier League a lot and with England you go back to the Iceland game at Euro 2016. They were so compact in the middle. We had silly amounts of possession. But we lost.”Southgate has trusted himself and his ideas are modern. He has picked players who are comfortable on the ball, meaning that Leicester City’s Harry Maguire has been picked instead of United’s Chris Smalling, and he demonstrated a willingness to think outside the box when he used Walker on the right of the back three, with Kieran Trippier at right wing-back, in the friendly against the Netherlands in March. Facebook Topics When it comes to rating England’s World Cup chances the obvious place to start is the attack. Yet the reasons to feel encouraged begin to evaporate when one looks at a rearguard that could struggle to protect Jordan Pickford. Belgium will certainly be expecting Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku to have some fun in Kaliningrad on 28 June and the thinking is that Gareth Southgate’s side will flounder as soon as they come up against high-calibre forwards. Gary Cahill wins a header for England in the 2-0 win against Costa Rica. The Chelsea defender has forced his way back into the squad after a strong end to the season. Photograph: Eddie Keogh for FA/Rex/Shutterstock Twitter To Russia with hope: England’s likable lads set off on World Cup adventure Share on Pinterest The Observer World Cup 2018: Guardian writers pick their England XI for the tournament Share on WhatsApp Share on Facebook England Read more John Stones Has a strength become a weakness? A shortage of top centre-backs never used to be a concern. Bobby Moore captained Sir Alf Ramsey’s world champions, Tony Adams and Sol Campbell were rocks in the late 90s and Sven-Goran Eriksson had such an embarrassment of riches at the back that he rarely found room for Wes Brown, Jamie Carragher and Ledley King, all of whom could reasonably expect to walk into the current side.But while the sense of foreboding grew when England strained during the second half of last Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Nigeria, Southgate’s defenders are not interested in pessimistic predictions. Phil Jones laughed when asked if he listens to criticism. “There have been question marks for the last 20 years,” the Manchester United defender said before Thursday’s friendly against Costa Rica. “Every time we go into a major tournament, it’s: ‘Oh, the defence this,’ or: ‘The midfield that.’ There are always points where people are expecting you to fail.” World Cup Walker is a right-back who loves to charge forward but he will have to curb his attacking instincts in such a role. “You can’t get forward too much,” he said. “I like to get forward but it’s not a one-man team. I’m 28. I’ve played enough football to know when to go. I’ve learned a lot at Manchester City. Could I have played in this position a couple of years ago? Probably not. I have to take my hat off to Pep Guardiola for what he’s taught me over the last year. It’s been an education.”Playing alongside Stones also helped Walker against the Dutch. “He coached me through the game,” he said. “He told me when not to go and when to go. Hopefully I can add something to the back three with my pace.”Stones, who admires Gerard Piqué’s stylishness and Sergio Ramos’s winning mentality, was bashful when Walker’s praise was put to him but the 24-year-old echoed his City team-mate’s assessment of Guardiola. “I don’t have enough time to tell you how much he’s done for me,” he said. “He’s changed and simplified everything. It’s how he explains things to you which makes it very easy for you. You can sometimes get overcrowded with information and think too much. The simplicity of it is a great thing that he possesses.”Stones has often been criticised for taking unnecessary risks – he endured a few ropey moments in the 1-1 draw with Italy in March and was visibly furious with himself at one point after giving the ball away against Costa Rica on Thursday. But he smiles and insists he relishes a bit of blood-and-guts defending. “People forget where I’ve blocked a shot that could have gone in against Nigeria,” he said. “It’s always the other thing.” England’s defenders are out to change the conversation. Share via Email World Cup 2018 Share on LinkedIn features Pinterest Share on Messenger Reuse this contentlast_img read more

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