Kyle Walker has spent a large portion of a decorated career apologising. At least it seems that way.
There were a couple of actual ones last year when he was caught breaking Covid-19 protocols two months into lockdown. The first was a sex party at his own home rumbled by The Sun. The second a far more innocent visiting of family. Naturally, understanding for the latter was trumped by the grubbiness of the former.
Figuratively, the bastardisation of his work on the pitch is of a player constantly making amends. The marauding full-back who lacks top-tier end product and often forgets to do the “back” bit of his job. A speed merchant who utilises this gift as an excuse when caught out of step. And whenever something good came from him, the previous bad got a mention. “Sure he’s done X, but he’s also prone to Y.” Praise for Walker the player, a three-time Premier League winner, is constantly in a running battle with Walker the person – of whom we know considerably less.
Yet as England’s men prepare for their first major final in 55 years, Walker, at 31, has emerged as both a beacon of consistency and a marker for excellence. All while maintaining the tenets of what made him such a devastating right-back.
He has started and finished all England’s matches, aside from the final Group D game against Czech Republic, by which time they had already qualified for the knockout stages. Across his 480 minutes, not one opponent has dribbled past him. No one has regained possession more – 37 times, committing just one foul – and only John Stones has completed more passes.
The last, most difficult stages of international progression as a right-back were overseen at club level by Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham Hotspur. The broader improvements, both tactically and in possession, were drawn out of Walker by Pep Guardiola. And it speaks volumes that Spurs have never quite recovered from selling him in 2017 and, just last year, Guardiola put on record his thanks to City signing Walker for the £53m they spent to bring him to the Etihad.
With new footballing dexterity, Walker emerged as a viable option as a centre-back in a back three or occasionally in a four. But it was telling that in the lead-up to this summer, Walker’s inclusion in Gareth Southgate’s 26-man squad was explained by casual observers as something of a makeweight. Neither your standout right-back if for defensive solidity (Kieran Trippier) or final-third threat (Reece James, and Trent Alexander-Arnold before his injury). Nor a centre-back to be trusted implicitly.
Yet, as we have seen, Walker is very much the key to England’s two plans that have garnered them so much success while conceding just one goal so far.
In a 3-4-3, operating as one in that first trio, he not only holds his own when facing goal but uses his pace to mitigate for the lack of it from his other two, whether it was Stones and Harry Maguire or Tyrone Mings before the Man United man’s return to fitness. This was most notable during the round-of-16 tie against Germany when Walker chaperoned Timo Werner any time the Chelsea forward put on the jets. More remarkably, when Thomas Muller was put through inadvertently by Raheem Sterling for what should have been the equaliser, Walker got within touching distance of Muller despite giving up a 20-yard head start.
Against Denmark as the right-back of the 4-3-3, he was immaculate in allowing Bukayo Saka to look forwards rather than back. His 10 ball recoveries were the most of any Englishman on Wednesday night, which included dulling the sharpness of Joakim Maehle, highlighted as the most dangerous immediate threat on Denmark’s left.
Walker battles Denmark’s Mikkel Damsgaard
Occasionally, Walker has stepped into England’s midfield to hustle or allow one of Declan Rice or Kalvin Phillips the freedom to carry or search for the ball further forwards. Ultimately, without Walker’s nous, speed and man-to-man bullishness as insurance, Southgate would have been unable to persist with the high line that features in both systems.
That is not to say Walker is flawless. In the early exchanges of the 4-0 defeat of Ukraine in the quarter-finals, most of the opposition joy came on his side. In fact, these flaws, lapses in positioning and concentration, saw him overlooked for selection a couple of years ago as alternatives like Alexander-Arnold were sought.
With Italy’s fluid attacking system of wave upon wave, he will be asked the most challenging questions of his tournament to date. The threats of Federico Chiesa and Emerson will be constantly coming his way, along with one of Ciro Immobile or Andrea Belotti depending on who Roberto Mancini chooses to lead the attack on Sunday. Whether out wide or closer to the middle, Walker will have plenty on his plate, not least the greater share he will have to assume from others.
It seems, however, he has never been better equipped to deal with that. While we can only assume greater private maturity, professionally he has never been more responsible and integral to any team he has played in.
No one in English football can do what he is doing right now, and not that many more around the world, either. In a crowded field of difference-makers for England in these European Championships, he is among the frontrunners. And how poetic it must be that, essentially, it is because of his ability to cover for the shortcomings of others.