Backfiring Luke Shaw gamble underlines baffling decision to ignore array of alternative England left-backs

Backfiring Luke Shaw gamble underlines baffling decision to ignore array of alternative England left-backs

As the first banished sides fly home from Euro 2024, their tournaments done, Luke Shaw’s is still, two-and-a-half weeks in, yet to start.

Only hours after the boost yesterday that the Manchester United defender was, not for the first time in the last fortnight, “back in training” with the rest of the England team, Gareth Southgate confirmed he will not play any part in tonight’s third and final group game against Slovenia.

“He was training with the group today but, as I said before, he wouldn’t be available for this game,” said Southgate, as if this was kind of part of the plan all along.

Except, clearly, it has not been. Having rated Shaw a “long shot” when naming his provisional 33-man squad last month, Southgate then offered an upbeat assessment when including him in the final 26, suggesting he could be ready to play some part in the second group game against Denmark. Ahead of the opener against Serbia, there was even better news: “Everyone is available. We have a decision whether Luke is possible to use from the bench or not.”

Since then, though, it has been all semantics and mystery, rewriting of timelines and refusing to give them; end of this week, start of next, training, not training, training alone, no public admission of a setback but a nagging suspicion that the story does not quite add up without one.

None of which is to say Southgate is deliberately misleading anyone here, though even if he were it would hardly be scandalous stuff, the team-news-no-news trend set by masters of the vague like Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola all season.

The England manager’s job, though, involves speaking to tens of media outlets in scores of interviews across the course of a week and, inevitably, he will say slightly different things, use slightly different words as events evolve.

The point is that Shaw’s rehabilitation has not been straightforward and the group stage, now, is set to pass him by.

Even if things go smoothly from here, what is the best-case scenario? Half-an-hour in the last-16 and then straight into a major tournament quarter-final? Or hold off until the semi, when a first start in what by then will be getting on for five months might come against France’s Ousmane Dembele?

It is not that the gamble has not paid off, nor that it might not yet still, but rather that the stakes did not have to be quite so high. As we sit here now, there are three defenders in Southgate’s squad who have not played a minute. Would taking a second specialist left-back — or even, more conservatively, a left-footed centre-back who has done the job, like Levi Colwill — instead of Joe Gomez have been such a risk?

Gomez’s versatility makes the depth chart across the backline look pretty, but he appears effectively third- or fourth-choice in each position and you have to get into freak disaster territory before seeing where Southgate might need him to start.

Against elite opposition, Kieran Trippier remains the best, most reliable covering bet. But in group matches England were expected to dominate, and against teams setting up with wing-backs rather than wingers, would Ben Chilwell’s defensive deficiencies or Tyrick Mitchell’s inexperience really have been so costly, compared to the benefits of balance and width?

At very least, it would have been a nice option to have.