soccer

Who will win could come down to mistakes on defense.

World Cup defense is like any other kind of security: It works best in layers. You build a castle; you dig a dead around it. You spring for the alarm features even though your car or your house has locks. You use strong passwords, multifactor authentication, and endpoint protection on your computer networks.

France’s World Cup winning team in 2018 was built on the redundant resiliencies of its central spine: goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, center backs Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti, and world-best defensive midfielder N’Golo Kanté, supported by Paul Pogba and defensive winger Blaise Matuidi . This was the platform upon which Kylian Mbappé spent the tournament freestyling through defenses, the one that ground through the tournament.

Both England and the United States, which meet Friday in the 2022 World Cup, are built on similar principles. For all the excitement the US men’s attacking talent has generated—Christian Pulisic! Gio Reyna! Tim Weah!—the team is built on its defense, and its defensive difference-makers. The pressing of the front line sets up the screening of the midfield to ease the mopping up of the defenders. Goalkeeper Matt Turner is capable of match-winning saves. Midfielder Tyler Adams is a one-man obstacle course for opponents to navigate. Both are lynchpins of the Americans’ defensive structure, and are often the heroes when that structure is breached. (Here especially is where the US misses injured center back Miles Robinson, who excelled at defending one-on-one and running down breakaways.) Even when it plays poorly, the US has largely been able to keep games close. It’s reeling them back by scoring the necessary goals that has proved harder.

England is more spoiled for choice. Its manager Gareth Southgate has a tendency, particularly in games against good teams, to pick the most defensive-minded player available at every position. Trent Alexander-Arnold, a genius passer and free kick taker, has played just 250 minutes for England this year because of his weakness as a defender. Mason Mount gets preferred to other attacking midfield options because he’s more diligent about cutting off passing lanes and other small defensive tasks. Southgate started two defensive midfielders, Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice, for much of the European Championships in 2021. The system is designed to be leak-proof, to hold onto the ball and to limit opponent counters at the cost of some attacking thrust. It has been very effective and horribly boring at the two major tournaments England have played under Southgate. In both the 2018 World Cup and those Euros, England blew away weak opposition—see England 6, Iran 2 from Monday—but struggled to put more talented opponents away in the later rounds, partly because it was too scared to take the chances that might have been required.

If you had to pick a defensive weakness in that version of England, you might start with the occasional fickleness of the people playing for it. Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford is capable of spectacular saves but also terrible mistakes, a level of variance that seems out of keeping with Southgate’s general philosophy. Ditto center back Harry Maguire, a defender who plays very well for England and occasionally very poorly for Manchester United, so much so that he has only played four times for them in the Premier League this season. Is England Harry Maguire an inherently different player? Or is his fundamental Harry Maguireness due to catch up to him at the international level, as he did against Germany in September?

The US knows this all too well from its game against Wales. Even as Wales came to dominate play in the second half, the American defense held strong until one rash decision from Walker Zimmerman—usually the USMNT’s most consistent defender—gifted Gareth Bale the tying penalty. You can put all the best practices and redundant security measures in the world in place, but none of it will matter if a Zimmerman or a Maguire plugs a USB drive he found in his mailbox into a work computer because it said it had a free copy of Crusader Kings III on it.

Southgate may have finally been nudged out of his protective crouch, though, by the emergence of England’s latest star. Nineteen-year-old midfielder Jude Bellingham has starred for German club Borussia Dortmund this season, scoring goals, providing assists, and breaking opposing lines with his dribbling. He England’s first goal scored against Iran on a simple header after running unmarked out of midfield, but his greatest value to Southgate is in adding another player to connect defense and attack, making England less reliant on its wingbacks for this link-up play. His distribution could be key to unlocking England’s forward talent, and his support going forward could make the Three Lions irresistible. He seems destined to be one of the world’s best players sooner rather than later, possibly even by the end of this tournament.

But England still has to get the balance right. Bellingham is not a slouch defensively, but his game requires him to push further forward, to take the kinds of risks Southgate’s midfield didn’t in the Euros. That could leave gaps that Rice will be tasked with covering alone, a hole in the English system that they’re still not comfortable compensating for. Bellingham’s three previous starts for England before the Iran game were a 3–3 draw with Germany, a 1–0 loss to Italy, and a 4–0 loss to Hungary. Southgate knows his team has newfound vulnerabilities; He seemed more upset about the other side’s “2” than he was glad of his team’s “6” after the Iran game.

Southgate has to pick his poison here. England’s talent would be favored in a war of attrition. You trust Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling to find a goal ahead of Pulisic and Josh Sargent a significant (but not insurmountable!) percentage of the time. On the other hand, if England brings the full weight of its offensive talent to bear on the Americans, it may simply overwhelm the US The US offense might not be able to exploit the gaps it leaves behind, especially if it plays as poorly in transition as it did against Wales.

But if England still doesn’t know how to cover for Bellingham in midfield yet, if Maguire opens the gates to let in a giant wooden horse, if Pickford clicks on an email attachment promising that Elon Musk is giving away his fortune to whoever finds a golden ticket hidden in a newly generated Twitter spambot, then the US could swipe victory. The English goal is only as secure as the people protected it.

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