Kyle Walker hands England injury scare to highlight unique challenge of mid-season World Cup



“I think he’s matured a lot over the last two or three years,” Southgate said. “He doesn’t have to be really vocal but his manner, his determination in the way he works… That hunger, that drive and he brings that and he brings that on the training pitch.”

It was Walker’s versatility and recovery pace that enabled England to play the three-at-the-back system which Southgate dipped into at Euro 2020 and now appears to prefer in the build-up to Qatar. Despite the well-publicised depth of options at right-back, no rival for the City full-back’s place has the same athleticism. Eric Dier’s recall gives Southgate new options in a back three but Walker remains crucial, as he has been since an 18-month international exodus was ended by a recall in 2020.

Time will tell regarding the severity of Walker’s abdominal issue, which can require between three and six weeks of rest and recovery. On that basis, he may return just in time unless it is a serious strain. It might be that his importance to England is deemed great enough to name him in the squad regardless, as Southgate did with Harry Maguire during his recovery from an ankle injury before Euro 2020.

Yet even the threat of him missing out is a reminder of the unique challenges that this mid-season World Cup presents.

Kyle Walker of Manchester City receives medical attention

The quicker turnaround between the hectic club schedule and tournament football means a greater risk of players carrying problems and less time for recovery. Walker is not the first pre-World Cup injury headache for Southgate – with his City team-mates Kalvin Phillips and John Stones also on the treatment table for shoulder and hamstring problems respectively – and he is unlikely to be the last.

Success at international tournaments is about catching lightning in a bottle. Not only do a generation of players need to peak at the right time in a four-year cycle, they also need to stay fit. One of the under-appreciated elements of England’s run to the Euro 2020 final was the relatively clean bill of health that Southgate’s squad enjoyed along the way.

There were issues. Maguire missed the opening games with that aforementioned ankle problem but returned to be named one of the players of the tournament. Phil Foden sat out of the final with a foot problem that sidelined him beyond the start of the following season, while Mason Mount missed two games as an unfortunate close contact of the Covid-positive Billy Gilmour.

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But in each case, the absences were limited to a handful of games and the few injuries were among those on the fringes of the squad. By and large, Southgate could select his first-choice line-up. The only high-profile absentee to miss the entire tournament was Trent Alexander-Arnold, who withdrew with a thigh issue during the warm-up friendlies. In hindsight, it is hard to imagine he would have featured prominently even if fully fit.

A year and a half later, it would be a twist of fate if Alexander-Arnold proved to be the inadvertent beneficiary of Walker’s misfortune. Southgate can only wait and hope that a key member of his squad is able to recover.

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