KYLE WALKER is under attack from an unexpected source as England prepare to face Belgium in their World Cup top-of-the-group decider in Kaliningrad.
Former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger believes the ex-Blade and Premier League winner with Manchester City “is not a real defender.” The Frenchman claims that if manager Gareth Southgate continues to play him as one of three centre-backs, all made in South Yorkshire, it will come back to bite him in Russia.
Wenger’s criticism two days after a 6-1 thrashing of Panama, partly mirrors former England defender Rio Ferdinand’s concerns during the last-gasp 2-1 win against Tunisia. Walker conceded a penalty, albeit a soft decision, enabling embattled Tunisia to equalise and change the momentum of the match.
“If you play right-backs at centre-half that’s what you get,” said Ferdinand. He didn’t, however, question Sharrow-born Walker’s ability in his more accustomed position which is what Wenger appeared to do.
“He’s not a real defender and especially not a central defender,” said Wenger. “He can be subject to defensive mistakes which he would not pay for when he plays as a right-back.”
Prior to the tournament Walker admitted the role he is being asked to play is not one he would choose. “I have been playing professionally since I was 18 at right-back,” he said. “So to go to your first World Cup and probably not play in your preferred position where you want to showcase your talent, is well, not disappointing but a little bit of a step back.
“I have to move on from it. I’m professional. I’ve played the game, I’m 28 now and as long as the manager feels it is going to benefit the team then why not?
His boss at City, Pep Guardiola has also encouraged it at times which Walker feels has helped him meet a personal World Cup challenge.
“The position I am playing now for my country, at right centre-half, could I have played it two years ago? Probably not. It was comfortable for me because of the work I have done at Manchester City.” Walker added: “He [Guardiola] doesn’t really like to be overloaded in midfield so, if he does see that, then I tuck in and we go as a back three.
England’s remarkable six-goal performance against Panama contained another extraordinary six. Continuing with the South Yorkshire contingent for their second group match in Nizhny Novgorod, boss Southgate then doubled the number of Yorkshiremen to complete a record-breaking demolition of the South Americans.
Sixty per cent of the outfield players at the final whistle were from God’s own county, three from Sheffield. Ex-Blades and lifelong Sheffield United fans Harry Maguire and Walker and Leicester City’s former Stocksbridge Park Steels striker Jamie Vardy.
Barnsley-born John Stones scored two of the goals and Tottenham’s Danny Rose, who hails from Doncaster, completed the South Yorkshire contingent. Fabian Delph, the Bradford-born Manchester City midfielder, was the other Yorkie.
Maguire travelled to watch England as a fan with pals at the 2016 European Championship in France. Two years later and just over eight months after making his international debut Leicester City's 6ft 2ins defender is now on the biggest football stage of all.
In typical down-to-earth fashion he arranged to join the same friends pitchside after victory over Panama to recreate a picture taken with them in St Etienne.
Stones who began learning his trade as a central defender at Oakwell and made 28 appearances for Barnsley before moving to Everton and now one of four players from the Etihad in the World Cup squad, could have had a hat-trick instead of skipper Harry Kane.
“As stupid as it sounds I could've scored a penalty but Harry takes them so I didn't want to take it off him. I would've had a go if he'd offered it, but to score two was enough for me. I only scored three goals in the whole of last season.
“To get two goals, I didn’t expect that. I never even thought I'd play in a World Cup so to score in one it's unbelievable.”