How to paper over England’s midfield cracks
England’s achievements at FIFA World Cup 2018 matched non-quantifiable progress with the tangible success of a run to the semi-finals.
The former was real. The latter was just real enjoyable, and it’s important not to lose sight of that fact.
At the World Cup England were presented with an opportunity they don’t usually get, and took it.
But their inability to overcome superior opponents is a problem that’s not going away.
In a recent episode of The Stiles Council, our England podcast, David Hartrick put it to me that England can field a team with a very fine goalkeeper, a reliable and cohesive three-man defence, two of a burgeoning cohort of top-notch wing backs, and one of Europe’s deadliest strikers.
Yet the friendly win against Switzerland was the only result standing between Gareth Southgate and England’s worst run of consecutive losses ever.
Had that fourth loss been inflicted on him then the comparative quality of the four opponents would have been a substantial caveat. With the UEFA Nations League arriving immediately after the World Cup, England’s defeats were against Croatia, Belgium and Spain.
They’re better teams than England. A simplistic view of Southgate’s record just before that run of losses throws up another defeat, also against Belgium at the World Cup.
Victory against superior opposition eludes the England boss. So, why can’t England punch above their weight?
The clue is in the semi-final loss to Croatia. Belgium and Spain are just plain better than England. But Croatia’s biggest area of advantage over England was in midfield.
The first game against Belgium and the friendly win against Switzerland showed that depth is a concern, but England can go toe-to-toe with most teams when it comes to their first choice goalkeeper, defenders, wing backs and attackers.
Without the midfield to match, raising their game to beat the big boys is a bridge too far.
With the thrill of the World Cup done and dusted, the workaday reality of the Nations League and a friendly international against a competent opposition sandblasted England’s midfield shortcomings into sharp relief.
England’s preferred system gives them a midfield three. Tactically, the roles are relatively well defined.
Jordan Henderson’s position as the deepest midfielder is backed up by Eric Dier. Henderson is the man in possession.
At the top of the midfield, Dele Alli is tasked with driving from the middle of the park and supporting a front two. One of those two is Alli’s Tottenham Hotspur team-mate Harry Kane; their partnership for England isn’t nearly as potent as it’s been at club level.
The third spot — let’s call it Generic Midfield Guy — belongs to Jesse Lingard and has also been occupied lately by Ruben Loftus-Cheek (dire against Switzerland) and Fabian Delph, among others.
There are good players who’ve played in midfield for England. But Henderson sums up why England seem able to consistently punch at their weight and no higher, and Dier isn’t even at Henderson’s level at present.
Alli lacks the explosiveness and excitement of his best games for Spurs. The different role he plays for England does him no favours.
The same might be true of Lingard, though the Manchester United player rarely performs less than ‘well’ for England and it’s possible he’s developing into the all-action midfielder that’s being asked of him. But his strengths, you’d think, suit a more advanced position.
The biggest gaps in the current England shape are both in the middle of the park: one deep-lying player to protect the defence, dominate transition and dictate the tempo; one further forward unlocking the opposition.
The second string doesn’t have the answer to either conundrum so Southgate and England are left with two viable solutions: change the shape, or change the players within it.
In truth, the best approach probably involves both.
On the same episode of The Stiles Council we talked about the need for the England manager to be brave in addressing the personnel problem.
The midfield shape is one issue but the harsh reality is that we’re quickly learning just how far short England are when it comes to plain old midfield ability.
What they do have in their locker is a series of age-level international generations that are better staffed in terms of midfield specialisms than the senior team.
There’s only one way to find out whether those players can make the difference. Southgate needs to show some guts in the name of discovery, but perhaps the likelier fix is a change of formation.
England’s variation on a 3–5–2 is the logical choice for a team with modern ideals, attacking intent and a desire for defensive solidity, but the national team doesn’t have the players for it.
The wing backs thrive but others are limited by the system. Kane’s role is different. Alli’s role is different. Marcus Rashford’s role is different, if and when he plays ahead of Raheem Sterling.
They’re not the only ones. That’s why 3–4–3 became a topic of discussion during the last international break.
It’s a tempting switch. England’s back four (Jordan Pickford in goal; Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire in defence) is a developing success story with time on its side.
Similarly, a wing back corps boasting Walker, if needed, along with Kieran Trippier, Luke Shaw, Danny Rose, Trent Alexander-Arnold and newcomer Ben Chilwell is surely the envy of most national teams.
3–4–3 keeps those five positions locked where they are. Elsewhere, though, it begins to resolve a few puzzles.
The wing backs in the current England set-up carry a creative burden and 3–4–3 keeps that onus on them. But, by deploying two deeper midfielders who aren’t necessarily expected to bust a gut from box to box for 90 minutes, the defensive load is shared.
The third midfielder is replaced by a third attacker. Kane would be supported and serviced by an outside forward on each side of him, and by attacking wing backs outside them. He should be less isolated as a result, yet also free of one strike partner getting under his feet.
And, in Sterling and Rashford, England have two thrilling prospects who are tailor-made for the outside forward job.
Of course, the key element to all of this is a pair of midfielders that England don’t currently have at their disposal. If you’ve somehow read this far, that will sound familiar.
Numbers four and eight are out there somewhere. Make yourself known. Your country needs you.