It’s like Sun Tzu once said: England must play three centre-backs at Qatar World Cup

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Gareth Southgate has more than a few issues to contend with heading into England’s final preparations

It was renowned Chinese strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu who wrote: “Invincibility lies in the defence; the possibility of victory in the attack.”

Heaven knows what his assessment of Gareth Southgate’s England squad would be ahead of this winter’s World Cup, then.

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The Three Lions have been lacking in a certain leonine presence of late, with just one goal in their last four outings and a multitude of looming gripes to resolve before they embark on FIFA’s festival of human rights abuses in Qatar.

Still, as declawed as the attack has looked in recent performances, it’s been nothing compared to the individual components of England’s defence, whose discrepancies at domestic level have been so hapless of late that they make Alex Jones’ attorneys look like Erin Brokovich.

The catalogue of underwhelming options at Southgate’s disposal would almost be absurdly funny, were it not such a cause for concern. Listing the cadre of bathos is a bit like going to see a pantomime performance of Snow White where the only two dwarfs the director could remember were Dopey and Sleepy.

In a fall from grace that would make Tonya Harding blush, Harry Maguire has seen his form - and indeed his reputation - plummet like a fridge freezer in an elevator shaft in recent months. Just two games into the new season, and Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag already looks to be pursuing other options at the heart of defence - although, to be fair to Maguire, as the old saying goes, if he’s doing nothing, at least he’s doing nothing wrong.

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Likewise, United teammate Luke Shaw and his starting berth at Old Trafford look to be in serious jeopardy for reasons that can perhaps best be described as “simple common sense”

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On the other side of Manchester, John Stones would be seeing less minutes than a blind watchmaker were it not for City’s mounting defensive injury issues, while over in the Midlands, Tyrone Mings is only assured of a spot in Aston Villa’s backline through a combination of Ezri Konsa’s foibles and Diego Carlos’ spontaneously combusting Achilles.

Conor Coady and James Tarkowski, once dark horses in the English Centre-Back Derby, will still fancy their chances of sneaking their way into the fold, but must also be acutely aware of the fact that they play their club football at Goodison Park; a foreboding place where dreams go to die these days - kind of like a footballing antithesis to Disneyland.

At left-back, Ben Chilwell is being kept out of Chelsea’s starting XI by West London’s latest Sideshow Bob impersonator, and at right-back... well, how long have you got?

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Kyle Walker is still trying to convince security at St. James’ Park to let him back in for his washbag after Allan Saint-Maximin repeatedly sent him to the car park on Sunday afternoon, Reece James is being played out of position to accomodate *checks notes* Ruben Loftus-Cheek at wing-back (no, me neither), and Trent Alexander-Arnold is arguably playing some of the worst football of his career to date.

So, what is to be done?

Well, there are two real options.

The first is to call on some of the lesser utilised weapons in Southgate’s armoury.

They may be in a minority, but there have been some bright English sparks at the back in recent weeks.

Kieran Trippier, when he’s not forcing Kevin de Bruyne into surprise limbo competitions, continues to impress for Newcastle United, while Arsenal’s Ben White right-back experiment, although in its infancy, is already showing promising results.

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On the continent too, Fikayo Tomori has dazzled as the anointed choice of Paolo bloody Maldini himself at Italian champions AC Milan.

The problem with blooding fresher talent (at least in the case of White and Tomori) now, however, is that England have just two games to go before they jet off to the Middle East, and those are against fellow European heavyweights Germany and Italy. Usually when people talk about a baptism of fire, the assumption is that it is not also a time trial.

Ergo, Southgate is likely to stick with what he knows, despite their persistent frailties.

Indeed, the most obvious way to patch over those flaws is to throw another body at the solution.

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England’s past two tournaments, and the relative success they have brought, have largely been achieved with a five-man defence; three in the centre and two out wide. There is a reason for this.

And it’s probably best to remember that reason when Southgate comes to name his starting XI against Iran on November 21st.

It’s like our old mate Sun Tzu once said: “Invincibility lies in the defence; the possibility of victory in the attack.”

Like it or not, England have to put most of their efforts into the former before they can even begin to think about entertaining the latter.

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