Why unsung Sheffield-born England and Manchester City defender Kyle Walker is someone worth shouting about
The ex-centre-back who made his fair share of appearances on the outer fringes of a back four was making the point that full-back has always been the least glamorous part of a football team. Perhaps that is changing because of the sheer volume of exceptional right-backs this country is churning out.
Trent Alexander-Arnold is the creative heartbeat of one of the great Liverpool teams, with his left-sided colleague, former Hull City full-back Andy Robertson, instrumental too.
Reece James is crucial to Chelsea, albeit from wing-back, and like Ben Chilwell and Marcos Alonso, has developed a taste for goals this season.
Matty Cash is a big player for Aston Villa, left-back Kieran Tierney - notwithstanding a recent injury - for Arsenal, and Tariq Lamptey’s performance against Leeds United playing further forward for Brighton and Hove Albion was a reminder of what a good player he is. If you turn a blind eye to recent form, Manchester United’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka must be one of the best out-and-out defenders not capped by England. Luke Ayling has been badly missed by Leeds when injured. Kieran Trippier, the epitome of the unglamorous full-back, is one of the few English players making a name for himself with a top continental club (Atletico Madrid).
So maybe this generation of “Gary Nevilles” are better regarded than their predecessors, but arguably the best of the lot, Kyle Walker, goes under-appreciated.
His managers know the value of the Sheffield-born defender, and Walker’s name is almost certain to be on the team-sheet when Manchester City host Leeds tonight. The experts who picked Euro 2020’s team of the year value him too, selecting him as one of three Englishmen (Harry Maguire, another from the Steel City made it too).
Yet have a conversation about who England’s best player is, and the 31-year-old World Cup semi-finalist and European Championship runner-up is unlikely to come into it. He should.
Walker is one of Gareth Southgate’s go-to men. There was a spell, in the season before last, when he was pushed aside but the England manager came back, picking him for every game except Scotland this summer on the right of a back three or at right-back. He could do a more than decent job at wing-back or left-back.
The odd off-field indiscretion has not helped and his recent Champions League red card reminded us he is not perfect on it either but Walker is one of the great European defenders.
No footballer is perfect - rumour has it even Roy Keane made mistakes during his career - but the fact Walker “irritates” the former midfielder is perhaps something we should be grateful for. Keane is a far more entertaining pundit with a bee in his bonnet - ie just about always.
But in highlighting Walker’s occasional lapses in concentration, even Keane had to admit to the key point.
“He makes too many mistakes and relies on his pace to get him out of trouble but he’s (a) big player for Man City and England so the kid’s doing something right.”
Walker’s pace means he can get out of on-field bother even more easily than he gets into it. Few defenders are as good one-on-one, and his covering is a huge asset, particularly to teams that like to charge forward on the counter-attack as Manchester City do.
As Keane’s television sparring partner Micah Richards responded: “When people say it’s his pace that gets him out of trouble - if you’re a No 10 and he uses his brain, he’s playing to his attributes.
“I’d put him up there with the top three full-backs in the world.”
Southgate and his City manager Pep Guardiola have been good for Walker, recognising he needs a prod every now and then.
“I probably needed to be dropped to realise the importance of playing for England,” admitted Walker after coming back into the fold.
Guardiola signed Joao Cancelo “to (provide) competition to Kyle and maybe when Joao plays in a good level, take his position.”
Cancelo is an outstanding full-back, unusual for how he steps in as a central midfielder with his team in possession, but has had to carve out a spot on the left.
Guardiola has also developed Walker from the bombing-on full-back who caught his eye at Tottenham Hotspur.
“He’s the one who has made me understand football so much better,” said Walker. “My understanding of the game, my knowledge of the game - where the press is going to come from, learning to go into midfield, to balance it off people, come in to receive the ball at the correct angle. So many little things you don’t really hear of.”
Leeds fans will hope Walker has a rare off-night this evening because with Cancelo suspended a night off seems even less likely but 2021 has been one long reminder that one of the best full-backs on the planet is a Yorkshireman. Maybe we should be less shy about admitting that.