After a terrible Nations League campaign, which has already seen them lose 4-0 against Hungary, England’s relegation from League A in the competition was confirmed after their 1-0 defeat at the hands of Italy on Friday.
The Three Lions were simply far too easy to play through and didn’t offer enough creativity in the final third, which exposed weaknesses in both the defence and the attack.
Ultimately, both of these issues stem from limitations in the midfield – a midfield that Gary Neville has previously described as not “competent” – and this defeat only highlighted the struggles in this area even further.
England Midfield a Serious Issue Ahead of the World Cup
England have now failed to win any of their last five games 😳
Their 1-0 loss to Italy means they've been relegated to to Tier B of the Nations League. pic.twitter.com/sh6ancjzsO
— GOAL News (@GoalNews) September 23, 2022
Lack of Defensive Cover
In recent years, Southgate has often opted for a midfield partnership of Declan Rice and either Kalvin Phillips or Jordan Henderson. This offered excellent defensive cover and somewhat mitigated England’s relatively weak defenders.
However, with Phillips currently injured and unable to get regular minutes at Manchester City, and Liverpool captain Henderson only getting older, Southgate needs to find an alternative pairing. Rice is almost a guaranteed starter, so the real question is who should play next to him? Many had suggested Jude Bellingham, expecting that the combination of both Rice and Bellingham would provide the perfect balance in the midfield.
However, if England’s defeat against Italy is anything to go by, then that partnership is not the answer.
Italy often bypassed the England midfield with a single pass, which left the back three exposed far too often. Bellingham is not a defensive-minded midfielder and that meant that Rice was effectively doing the defensive work of two players. In fact, Bellingham did not make a single interception or tackle against Italy.
In theory, this seemed like a perfectly balanced midfield duo, but it didn’t offer anywhere near enough defensive cover for it to be successful at the upcoming World Cup.
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England Midfield Doesn’t Offer Enough Creativity
This has been an issue throughout Southgate’s England reign. From the 2018 Russia World Cup to the recent 2020 European Championships, there has been an obvious lack of creativity in the England midfield.
England need a midfielder that is capable of playing penetrative, vertical passes that allow the side to progress up the pitch quickly. Phillips does offer that to a certain extent, however, when he is injured, there is a clear drop-off in this area.
If Bellingham isn’t the answer, then who is? The truth is, England aren’t blessed with creative midfielders in the same way that nations such as Spain and Italy are.
So, perhaps the easiest way to fix this is a change in the system.
– Relegated from their Nations League group
– Not scored from open play in 450+ minutes
– Worst run in 22 years
Gareth Southgate's England 😳 pic.twitter.com/67Z7sIwKTf
— SPORTbible (@sportbible) September 23, 2022
Is a Three-Man Midfield the Answer?
If Southgate opted for a 4-3-3 formation or a variation of some kind, it would allow England to play with a three-man midfield.
This would help in two main ways. Firstly, it would give the side an extra body in midfield. This not only increases defensive solidity in that area of the pitch but also means that England would be far better equipped to compete against an opposition’s three, or even four-man midfield in some cases.
Secondly, it would give Southgate the option of deploying a number ten at the head of that midfield trio. This opens up all kinds of possibilities and could solve the issues mentioned previously.
Southgate could still utilise his favoured Rice and Phillips combination at the base, however, he would now also be able to deploy a more creative player ahead of them, such as a Jack Grealish or Phil Foden; perhaps even James Maddison based on his current form.
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In theory, this midfield would offer the perfect balance between defensive awareness, passing ability and attacking creativity.
Whether or not this is the answer remains to be seen, but Gareth Southgate must find a solution to England’s midfield crisis before the start of the Qatar World Cup if the Three Lions are to have any chance of success at the tournament.