For all the improvements made by England under Gareth Southgate — and reaching the World Cup semifinals and European Championship final suggests there are many — one major problem has been holding the team back.
Finding the right balance in England’s central midfield is an issue that predates Southgate. Who, for example, can forget that long-running debate over whether Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard could play together in the early 2000s?
Fast forward a few years and the current England team hasn’t got that world-class quality of Gerrard, Lampard and Paul Scholes as center-midfield options. Instead, Southgate has a few solid, hard-working players sprinkled with some potential stars of the future who are still learning their trade in a number of different positions.
With England’s conservative midfield being overrun by Croatia in the World Cup semifinals in 2018 and Italy in the Euro 2020 final, there has been a clamor to get some more ball-players in the midfield three to give the team a chance of retaining possession better against top opposition.
So when Southgate selected a central midfield consisting of Declan Rice as the anchorman behind two attacking No. 8s in 22-year-old Mason Mount and 21-year-old Phil Foden for Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier against Hungary, there was a sense of anticipation.
Was this the dawn of a new exciting era for England heading into next year’s World Cup in Qatar?
Well, no. In fact, it was a reality check.
England produced one of its most disjointed and sterile displays under Southgate in a 1-1 draw at Wembley Stadium that punctured some of the optimism that has been built up around the team.
Mount and Foden, who often play in the front three for Chelsea and Manchester City, respectively, were positionally ill-disciplined, leaving Rice without support and at times overrun. A team better than 40th-ranked Hungary would have made more of their opportunities on the break.
“We weren’t in contact with them (Hungary) on our pressure, which gave them a little comfort in the game,” Southgate said of his midfield experiment. “We gave needless passes away which led to counterattacks that give the feeling you are stretched.”
Man City manager Pep Guardiola isn’t ready to play Foden — widely regarded as the big hope of English soccer — as a central midfielder, saying he needs to develop as a player and have more control in his game to play at different tempos. That was highlighted against Hungary, where some neat touches and through-balls failed to mask his tactical and positional naivety.
The same was true for Mount, who mostly plays as a No. 10 for Chelsea ahead of two experienced holding midfielders like N’Golo Kante and Jorginho.
The fact that Southgate has resisted playing this attacking central-midfield set-up to this point — and acknowledged it didn’t work against Hungary — will likely see him go back to the drawing board. That should mean an immediate return to the team for Kalvin Phillips, the deep-lying Leeds midfielder who was missing because of injury and was described by Southgate after the game as an “essential part of our midfield.” Jordan Henderson, the Liverpool captain, is another option, even if he hasn’t started in England’s first-choice team for some time.
The Rice-Phillips axis gives England more solidity and is one of the reasons why the defense has been so impressive in recent years. But does that combination give England enough quality to compete with the biggest teams like Italy, whose midfield dominated the Euro 2020 final, or Spain or France? They are the kind of countries whose level England aspires to reach.
Jude Bellingham could yet fit the bill as the kind of all-around midfielder England has needed, but the Borussia Dortmund player is only 18 and wasn’t called up in this international window to manage his workload. He is still a work in progress.
England just doesn’t have the quality of midfielder to compare with players like Jorginho and Marco Verratti (Italy), Kante and Paul Pogba (France), and Pedri and Sergio Busquets (Spain).
Southgate must therefore find the right balance to make up for an inferior level of individual talent. It’s his biggest task ahead of the World Cup.