Kyle Walker celebrates England's victory over Denmark

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Arsène Wenger had a maxim he would pass on to young players which seemed to defy all logic: work on your strengths, not your weaknesses. His reasoning was that to distinguish themselves among the hundreds of preternaturally talented athletes who populate elite football, a player must develop one outstanding attribute. In short, to possess a superpower.

Kyle Walker has a superpower: he never loses a race and has developed into a specialist full-back built to shut down opposition attackers in one-on-one duels. He is the ultimate insurance policy, ensuring a defensive unit has margin for error. Lose the ball and gift the opposition a dangerous break? Walker will get back. Caught out of position? Walker will sweep up.

Pep Guardiola, a coach for whom fast breaks and counter-attacks have been kryptonite, recognised his value and, bar a few dips in form, made Walker a key part of his Manchester City side. Capable of pushing forward when required, tucking inside or staying attached to his centre-backs, Walker is a big reason City can play such expansive football while keeping the back door bolted shut.

Gareth Southgate’s England, now Euro 2020 finalists, play in a more circumspect way but still relied on Walker’s powers of recovery during the rocky periods of their semi-final against Denmark. Along with Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Harry Maguire, he was one of England’s best performers on the night, on Denmark’s strong left flank where they love to attack through Atalanta’s Joakim Maehle.

Walker, by his own admission, is not a flawless player. He is not always as technically clean as his team-mates for club and country, and there have been some notable stray passes in this tournament. 

Defending and marking at the back post on crosses from the opposite side has been a problem. Walker’s first-half against Ukraine was the only blemish on England’s performance. But he was key against Denmark.

It is difficult to quantify defensive contributions using stats alone – so much of defending is about context and positioning in relation to opponent, ball and team-mate – but the headline numbers do reveal something about Walker’s style of defending. 

England did not really use him on the front foot – Walker made just one tackle and two interceptions. He led the team in ball recoveries though with 10, which shows his importance on the cover when the ball is played long into the channel or behind his centre-halves.

England vs Denmark: Ball recoveries

Denmark more than played their part in the first hour of the match, before they tired and star man and goalscorer Mikkel Damsgaard was substituted. Thomas Delaney and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg grew in influence, and looked to have the measure of England pair Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips. 

Denmark’s good football did not result in a stack of chances though, and that was due to some good interventions from Maguire, Stones, but particularly Walker.

In the first 10 minutes, a nice turn and reverse pass from Damsgaard found Delaney in space behind England’s midfield with Rice stranded on an island in the middle of the pitch. 

Delaney looked for the team’s key outlet in Maehle, but Walker matched his run and recovered to wrestle him off the ball and regain position. Straightforward defending but effective.

Walker’s one-on-one defending in sequence

Denmark have cut through England’s midfield and found Delaney in space. 

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He has time to turn and look for the run of Maehle – there is nobody else you would want in this situation but Walker.

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Walker gets back to win the ball off Maehle and snuff out a potentially dangerous attack. 

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More advanced was Walker’s cover play in the sequence below. Maguire had been drawn out into the space vacated by Luke Shaw, meaning Stones had to shuffle across and leave central space you could drive a coach through.

Walker’s defending on the cover 

England look in trouble for a second or two with their centre-backs dragged wide. 

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Denmark’s football in a small space is neat, with a good flick around the corner from Martin Braithwaite and Kasper Dolberg and Jens Stryger Larsen executing an old school up, back and through looking for the run of Damsgaard. 

Perhaps the weight of the pass could have been better, but Walker again eats up the yards to get there first and usher the ball back to Jordan Pickford.

Credit: ITV Sport

Later in the half, the otherwise excellent Damsgaard was guilty of not knowing his opponent when he killed a potential counter-attack by trying to run Walker. The results were not pretty.

Do not try to push and run Walker

The Denmark attacker thinks he has the chance to start a counter-attack. 

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Walker has other ideas.

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At half time in extra time, Southgate switched to a back five with Walker shifting to right centre-back, and the tactical flexibility he offers has been key for England throughout the tournament. 

As explored in this piece, having a converted full-back on the right or left of a back three is a key ingredient for maximising the system. They are comfortable defending wide areas and can become a valuable spare man in attack.

It is unlikely Southgate will opt for 3-4-3 in Sunday’s final against Italy given the need to have central numbers against Roberto Mancini’s high-calibre midfield, but there will be no doubt about who starts at right-back. 

Given the depth England possess in the position, that says plenty for Walker’s performances and his match up against Lorenzo Insigne promised to be one of the game’s defining ding-dongs.