Calm and commanding Marc Guehi steps up for England to solve a problem position

Marc Guehi was excellent for England alongisde John Stones in the heart of defence (The FA via Getty Images)

As Gareth Southgate did the rounds of the England players at full-time on a nervy evening in Gelsenkirchen, he eventually found his way to Marc Guehi. The England manager pulled Guehi towards him and leant into his ear in pride: the performance from his centre-back had more than validated Southgate’s faith as England held on to a 1-0 win over Serbia to get their Euro 2024 up and running.

There will be concern that England lost their way and showed unsettling similar signs of some of their previous disappointments at major tournaments under Southgate, allowing Serbia to slowly creep into the game, but Guehi’s display alongside John Stones in defence was a major positive of the evening. Without one of their Southgate stalwarts in Harry Maguire, the Crystal Palace centre-back may have solved a problem position.

One of the reasons England arrived at Euros as one of the favourites is because it is the point this side has been building towards for so long, yet within it Guehi was an untried and untested part. At  23, Guehi was making just the 10th start and 12th appearance for his country when he was picked to face Serbia in Gelsenkirchen. The son of a church minister who moved to England from the Ivory Coast when he was one, now forms part of the defence that Southgate will hope can lead towards Berlin and back into the European championship final next month.

For Guehi, this was the biggest night of his life, and he absolutely smashed it. Guehi was assured and imposing, calm and commanding. He settled into the game by defending on the front foot, alive to the danger. Dusan Vlahovic, the Serbia forward signed by Juventus for over E80m, went a whole half while barely having a touch. Vlahovic, who formed part of a physical front two alongside Mitrovic, was brushed aside by Guehi in the opening stages. If Vlahovic thought Guehi was there to be intimidated, he could think again.

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Guehi marked Vlahovic and did not put a foot wrong (Getty Images)

When England enjoyed their better moments in the first half, as Jude Bellingham buzzed and Southgate’s side dominated possession, Guehi played a central role in their control. When England lost it and Gelsenkirchen felt edgier and edgier in the second half, Southgate’s new centre-back partnership was put under the test.

But the least experienced member of the starting England side also benefited from the leadership around him. Stones was an example, bringing his usual composed class. It becomes easier to defend your box as a centre-back when you have a shield like Declan Rice in front of you, snapping in challenges and snuffing out any embers before flames before they could become fires.

England’’s defence has been the subject of scepticism, but they were there for each other. When Vlahovic got past Guehi in the second half, the recovering Trippier applied pressure to the pull-back. As Jordan Pickford fell on a loose ball in the area, Guehi was grateful for his goalkeeper. England, it turned out, needed their clean sheet. They had to ride this out, which may ask more questions of England than first appeared after such a bright start.

england football team, euro 2024, marc guehi, gareth southgate, crystal palace, calm and commanding marc guehi steps up for england to solve a problem position
Guehi thanks Pickford for diving on a loose ball (Getty Images)

Gelsenkirchen was muggy following the early evening rain, the Veltins Arena had the feeling of an enormous greenhouse dumped in Germany’s coal mining region. The heat of the afternoon, where seven Serbian supporters were arrested following clashes in the city, had not quite died down: a pre-match video from Novak Djokovic stirred emotions further; England’s reply from Russ Cook, the Hardest Geezer, did not quite have the same effect. Both anthems were loudly booed by the opposite ends. But after the gambles and the bold squad selection, this was simultaneously the moment England had been building towards and the start of a new era.

And for the opening 20 minutes, England looked to be delivering a statement performance, full of encouraging signs. Bukayo Saka was outstanding, full of sharp movements and turns. His dart behind the Serbia full-back Filip Kostic led to England’s opener and while Bellingham remained a level above anyone on the pitch, Saka was their biggest threat throughout on the right. Phil Foden was quiet, which has been a theme of his international career, but it can only be a matter of time before the Premier League’s player of the year has his moment.

Harry Kane stayed up front, so anonymous that Southgate may have wondered if he needed to send out a search party, but England looked all the better for it. With Bellingham thriving in midfield and running the show, England did not need their captain to be dropping deep. By staging up front, Kane’s chances will come and when they do: the England captain was denied by an excellent save from the Serbia goalkeeper, Predrag Rajkovic, who tipped his header onto the crossbar, but England know they could not have a deadlier forward to take them.

Defence has been the biggest question mark of this England team, but really, the question mark was over the player who would partner Stones. There were a lot of eyes on Guehi here, by far the newest component to this England team, the only player in Southgate’s side who had not played a fixture like a major final for club or country.  A calf injury ruled Maguire out of also featuring at every major tournament under Southgate since the 2018 World Cup. In his place was Guehi.

Maguire never let England down on the big stage, but it is easy to forget that before starting in England’s opening game of the 2018 World Cup, Maguire had played just five times for his country and only one, a qualifier against Lithuania, was a competitive fixture. He ended the summer as a cult hero, a sign of the feel-good factor Southgate had created. Now, Guehi may represent a dynamic England team, that features fresh twists and bold choices. There is a long way to go, but this was an assured start.

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