LONDON — Five games, no goals conceded.
England’s defense at the European Championship has proved to be an impenetrable part of Gareth Southgate’s winning formula in the team’s run to the semifinals.
Had the tournament taken place as planned a year ago, the defense would probably have looked very different. Consider the four-man backline of John Stones, Luke Shaw, Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire from England’s 4-0 victory over Ukraine on Saturday, a victory which set up a meeting with Denmark on Wednesday.
Stones is the only defender to start all five England matches at Euro 2020. But the center back had lost his place in the squad before the pandemic after becoming a bit-part player at Manchester City.
Shaw only returned to the England team as left back in March for his first appearance since 2019 after struggling with injuries and confidence at Manchester United.
In the competitive right back spot, Walker was overlooked for three consecutive sets of international matches in the second half of 2019 before the coronavirus outbreak put international games on hold.
Although Maguire remained ever-present in central defense in the run to the 2018 World Cup semifinals, it was in August 2020 that his England future looked in doubt.
A conviction for an assault while on vacation in Greece led to Maguire being withdrawn from the England squad. But after the Manchester United captain was granted a retrial, Southgate accepted his version of the incident on the Greek island of Mykonos and he was a recalled in October 2020.
Further evidence of Southgate’s loyalty came when Maguire was selected for Euro 2020 despite an ankle ligament injury that ultimately prevented him playing in the opening two games of the tournament.
Since then, he played in a back three with Stones and Walker in the 2-0 quarterfinal win over Germany, and formed a center back partnership with Stones in the 1-0 victory over the Czech Republic in the final group game and the rout of Ukraine.
Maguire even scored England’s second goal in Rome on Saturday, heading in a cross from Shaw.
“We spoke about the need to be better at attacking set plays,” Maguire said. “It was a great ball from Luke.”
Shaw is more than justifying his England recall after the renaissance of his United career under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
But Shaw hasn’t managed to escape the sniping from Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese manager, who was fired by United in 2018, complained while working as a radio commentator at Euro 2020 that Shaw’s deliveries were “dramatically bad.”
He’s still having to prove Mourinho wrong. It was Shaw’s cross that was met by Raheem Sterling to put England ahead against Germany and he also set up Kane’s second goal against Ukraine — beyond his defensive duties.
“A lot of people maybe will have doubted me to be in the squad,” Shaw said. “But I’ve kept my head down, kept working hard and hopefully I can keep this responsibility up for the manager.”
Southgate doesn’t give unwavering backing based on past performances.
The coach had concerns that Stones wouldn’t recapture the form that helped England reach the last four at the World Cup, especially when his mistakes proved costly at the Nations League finals in 2019.
At the time, Stones had been going through a well-publicized break-up with the mother of his child, a woman who had been his girlfriend since childhood. He also faced competition for his place in the City team. But his personal life became more settled, the lapses in concentration on the field were cut out and his composure was regained on the ball. After regaining his starting spot, Stones was central to Pep Guardiola’s Premier League-winning side.
“I came back wiser, more experienced,” Stones said, “and maybe a better player.”
Another key player has been Kieran Trippier, who had to settle with coming off the bench against Ukraine.
The versatile right back, who scored in the World Cup semifinal loss to Croatia, has enjoyed a career resurgence since moving to Atletico Madrid in 2019, winning the Spanish title last season.
But 2021 started with Trippier serving a 10-week ban for breaching English betting rules linked to that transfer. Southgate even vouched for Trippier’s good previous disciplinary record in the case. The trust in Trippier was evident when Southgate used him in a less accustomed position on the left in the opening Euro 2020 win over Croatia.
Whatever formation he has used, Southgate has always stuck with goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, who has kept the five clean sheets.