England beat Switzerland on penalties to follow up fourth at the World Cup with third in the Nations League. Progress is being made but the midfield must improve if Gareth Southgate is to take this team further…
It is the 34th minute and the ball has already made its way from the edge of the opposition penalty area to the feet of Harry Maguire just inside his own half. The defender looks up for the pass but sees nobody showing for it. Exasperated, he knocks the ball back to goalkeeper Jordan Pickford before turning up the field and flinging his arms open wide in frustration.
This is not an isolated incident. In the 16th minute, Trent Alexander-Arnold looks to pass the ball to Eric Dier but the midfielder instead points for the ball to go back to Joe Gomez. In the 28th minute, Dier has the option of playing a forward pass into the feet of fellow midfielder Fabian Delph but instead chooses the much safer ball back to Maguire.SORRY!The video you are trying to watch cannot be viewed from your current country or locationPLEASE TRY SELECTING A DIFFERENT VIDEOHighlights of the Nations League game between England and Switzerland
It is a little churlish to single out Dier. He scored his penalty in the shootout that was enough to help England past Switzerland to claim third place in the Nations League. This was not a poor performance and Gareth Southgate’s team would – and did – face many of the same issues with Declan Rice operating in that holding midfield role instead.
Southgate has also called on Jordan Henderson, Fabian Delph and Ross Barkley in Portugal. The problem goes beyond all of them, but it is a problem. Much of the focus after the Netherlands defeat in the semi-final on Thursday was on the decision-making of England’s defenders, but the flaws in that performance ran deeper than the mistake by John Stones, as his Manchester City teammate Kevin De Bruyne pointed out.
“When you play in a team like City where we are used to playing out from the back, we give each other options,” explained De Bruyne. “When you go to a different team and try to do the same but you don’t get the options, it’s very difficult to play differently. I think everyone knows what John’s strengths are, but he can’t do it by himself, he needs help there.”
Those options should be available in midfield but England continue to miss that player who can come and collect the ball under pressure and progress the play up the field. After 90 minutes of the game against Switzerland, the stats showed that Dier had passed the ball to Maguire as many times as he had passed it to anyone else.
Against both Switzerland and Netherlands, there were times when the central midfielders appeared content to be bypassed. It puts too much of an onus on England’s defenders.
“I think Kevin De Bruyne has got a point,” Neville told Sky Sports.
“There were times when I was watching Harry Maguire and John Stones on the ball and thinking that they had not got a pass. There is no doubt the options for them to play through the thirds were not there. What were the players in front doing to get on the ball and create space? I don’t think there was a lot happening.”
There is a lot to admire about Southgate’s England. Set pieces were a major weapon at the World Cup, where his switch to a back three brought greater control if only in deep areas. More recently, reverting to a back four helped to unleash the counter-attack to good effect against Spain. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s emergence is a huge asset in terms of his crossing.
But midfield control remains the missing ingredient.
“We are further forward but some of the same habits that cost us continue to bite us,” said Neville after having had time to reflect on the semi-final defeat. “The other night, after ten minutes I was looking at our midfielders and looking at their midfielders and thinking that there was a gulf in class here in terms of how to control a football match.
“I have always said Paul Scholes was the best that I have played with because he had a unique ability to control a football match and that’s something you can’t explain until you have lived it week in and week out. Andrea Pirlo did it, Xavi did it, Frenkie De Jong does it, Sergio Busquets does it. Xabi Alonso did it for Real Madrid, Toni Kroos does it for Germany.
“There are a lot of these types of players. They are so important and we just haven’t got those types of players to be able to accept the ball on the half turn and rotate in midfield and create space for each other. I always think controlling games is a problem from an England point of view.”
The issue tends to manifest itself more at tournaments. Seven games inside a month, often at higher temperatures, necessitates some resting in possession. Luka Modric helped do that for Croatia at the World Cup. The England midfielder who attempted the most passes out in Russia was Henderson but he completed only 79 per cent of his passes.
“It is an essential quality of a midfield player in tournaments that they can control the game, accept the ball on the half turn, and get the game moving from a point of view of holding onto the ball,” said Neville. “There is too much evidence now over 15 years now for England to ignore it. I am sure Gareth Southgate will be thinking about that every waking hour.”
What is the solution?
The challenges for English football are systemic and so pivotal is the midfield playmaker that the top clubs in the Premier League will be tempted to outsource the role. However, there are some options that Southgate could turn to that might help to alleviate the problem.
Phil Foden’s promise is encouraging and could make a real difference to England’s midfield. Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard are excellent at breaking into the box but they are not as comfortable as Foden when receiving the ball at their feet in tight situations. The ability to pick that pass in the final third was a weakness against Switzerland. He could unlock things.
In those deeper areas, Harry Winks is a player who could also have an impact on the team’s style of play. He had the highest pass completion rate of any English midfielder in the Premier League this past season and while he could be a little more expansive in his play, Winks has demonstrated that he can retain possession and circulate the ball at speed.
It is a lot to pin on these players. Winks turns 24 next season and is some way short of the quality shown by the world-class midfielders namechecked by Neville. Foden, for all his potential, has only started three Premier League games in his career.