The left-field selection came at left-back. Kieran Trippier had started in the position on only four previous occasions – once for Tottenham in the EFL Cup against Barnsley in 2017 and three times for England this season: against Iceland, Belgium and Austria. Now, Gareth Southgate had given him the role for Sunday’s Euro 2020 opener against Croatia.
The surprise was rooted, equally, in who Southgate had overlooked – Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw; specialist left-backs at the peak of their powers after standout seasons with Chelsea and Manchester United. Chilwell has just won the Champions League. Now, he did not make the 12-man bench, leaving him to reflect, ostensibly, on having come in third in a two-horse race.
With regard to Trippier, the only surprise for Southgate was that there was any surprise at all. The manager believes myopia is at work when it comes to assessments in England of Trippier, in so far as many seem to think he dropped off the face of the earth when he left Tottenham in 2019 rather than move to Atlético Madrid – where he has just won the league title.
It could also be the case that while there is a swashbuckling quality to Chilwell and Shaw – an ability to quicken the pulse with those surging runs from deep – Trippier represents the safer option. And, if there is one thing that supporters will always prefer, it is the thrills.
Southgate picked Trippier to defend. He picked him for his experience and awareness, his communication – mindful, perhaps, that Tyrone Mings, at left centre-half, had endured a few sticky moments in the warmup matches against Austria and Romania. Mings had also never played in a game alongside the other central defender, John Stones. And he picked Trippier for his set-piece prowess. Few will forget his goal against Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final.
Trippier had the chance to reproduce it just before half-time only to put a free-kick into the wall rather than over it and into the top corner. But he carried out everything else asked of him to the letter.
It was clear Southgate did not want him to bomb forward. When Raheem Sterling wandered inside from the left wing, Mason Mount peeled over to that side from the left of the midfield three and Trippier held. There were a couple of occasions when Trippier might have driven forward only to check. No matter. It was all about the balance he provided. Croatia could not get in behind England and they struggled to create clearcut chances in the 1-0 defeat.
Trippier made it clear when he joined Atlético that he needed to improve on the defensive side to his game and he knew he would have no better teacher than Diego Simeone. The manager has worked relentlessly with him, particularly on the one-versus-ones but also positioning, how to deal with crosses into the box, how to attack the ball, body shape.
Southgate has watched admiringly as Trippier has grown. The title medal has been the main thing but Trippier was also named in La Liga’s team of the season. He missed 12 matches because of his ban for breaking the Football Association’s betting rules – a consequence telling friends he was going to go to Atlético, but he did not miss a minute of action, otherwise. When he was available, Simeone played him.
“What Kieran has, firstly, is hugely underestimated,” Southgate said. “IPeople are still seeing the lad that was at Spurs a couple of years ago and not the defensive animal that has grown at Atlético Madrid, trusted by one of the best and most successful coaches in the world.
“He gets his distances right on cover, he’s good one-v-one to stop crosses and his talking is really good. There was always going to be changes to our back four and we felt that communication and organisation was an important part.”
The interesting thing about the defence-first Trippier against Croatia was that it was not necessarily a creation that La Liga fans would recognise – especially on the left side. The player the former Atlético forward Kiko described as being “a full-back with a playmaker’s foot” is known principally in Spain for his capacity to make the game, for being the full-back that goes rather than sticks.
At Atlético this season, Simeone has played a hybrid system when the left-back, Mario Hermoso, slides across to make a third centre-half and Trippier pushes high and wide on the right, often being the first receiver of the ball, who fires moves with his passes up and inside.
Trippier has built a reputation for being secure in possession; he almost never surrenders it. That said, nobody plays for Simeone if they are not defensively rock solid.
All of which is to say that Trippier’s flexibility against Croatia was an outstanding feature of the win. Can Southgate play with him in the same way against a lower-ranked team like Scotland on Friday, when there could be a call for greater overlapping up the flanks? Or would Trippier be comfortable there against the very best opposition?
The 30-year-old will simply keep his head down and get on with it. This is what he does. After his betting ban, there was no desire on his part to rake over it in public. He had been naive and had paid a price. Now to move on. Whatever the coming weeks hold and wherever Trippier fits in, he will be ready.