England’s Midfield Conundrum

England’s Midfield Conundrum

England’s Midfield Conundrum

Every time the World Cup or European Championships roll around, it always seems tough being an England fan. It’s now 52 years since England’s only international tournament win with the World Cup in 1966 and every time there’s a tournament there’s a sense of hope across the nation which ultimately gets crushed, usually before the latter stages of the tournament. Ahead of the World Cup in Russia however there’s a different sense of optimism behind the England camp. When England manager Gareth Southgate announced his squad for the 2018 World Cup in Russia you can look at that squad and actually see the potential for England to actually take the game to their opponents this summer. Southgate has described the squad as “a squad which we can be excited about” but the squad is still lacking, especially in midfield the youthfulness of the squad could be punished once they get to Russia.

The System

Southgate’s England are near enough certain to lineup with 3 centre backs and wing backs in Russia but the lack of options in midfield could become a real problem for the Three Lions. The former England centre-half-turned boss has tried a number of different systems in the lead up to the tournament and still may try more in the warmup friendlies, but it looks certain that he’ll opt for a back three in Russia, which likely leaves one less player in midfield. In the November’s friendlies against Brazil and Germany, Southgate lined up with a 3-5-2 formation and is expected to use that or a 3-4-3 system at this summers tournament. Both systems however still leave problems with Southgate’s current midfield options.

Both the 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 formations require two central midfielders in the side and Englands 23 man squad doesn’t have too many options in that position after the surprise exclusion of Jack Wilshere and Adam Lallana. The midfielders in these roles need to be able to break up play well and have the ability to shift the ball forwards quickly, that is pivotal to the system working. They have to be able to move the ball onto the more attack-minded players so that England don’t get stuck behind a tough defensive line which they cannot breakdown. The current options however don’t seem to offer the attacking support that England require to be successful in Russia.

England’s current midfield problems

England’s midfield options for the World Cup are Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson, Fabian Delph and Ruben Loftus Cheek. They’re the only 4 players that can realistically occupy the deeper holding positions which could result in a massive problem for England going forward. If Southgate reverts back to a 3-4-3 formation like he’s expected to do, the first choice midfield duo would most likely be Tottenham’s Eric Dier and Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson, and neither of those two are players that are known for either starting or supporting the attack. Henderson and Dier are good at what they do defensively and are both comfortable in possession but aren’t players that are able to be the main spark of creativity within a side. Dier, a converted centre back into a defensive midfielder doesn’t have that creative spark within him and has averaged 0.4 key passes per game in the Premier League this season. Whilst Henderson makes less than 1 key pass per game too at 0.9, the 73rd best in the Premier League this season.

The other midfield options don’t fill you with too much confidence either. Fabian Delph, despite being a regular figure in Manchester City’s march to the Premier League title has only started in central midfield once all season long in their 2-1 victory against West Ham back in December. He hasn’t been a regular in the position all season, despite him playing his early career there and looks more of a utility option in Southgate’s squad rather than a key figure. That only leaves Ruben Loftus Cheek as the main option for England to carry the ball forward between midfield and attack. The Chelsea midfielder, who has been on loan to Crystal Palace all season only has 2 caps for England and came off injured in his 2nd game against Brazil. He did impress in his England debut against Germany though and was awarded man of the match for his performance so it will be extremely interesting to see how he performs on the highest international stage this summer. The 22-year-old has made the highest number of key passes made of England’s midfield options but his lack of experience at international level means he’s likely to be a bit part player in Russia.

England need a player that can carry the ball from midfield to support the forwards or the quality to play a quicker pass that gives the attacking players space to create some magic but England don’t have a player that can do that in the World Cup squad making the omission of Wilshere even more surprising. Wilshere has more assists in the Premier League this season than any of the current midfielders in the squad other than Loftus Cheek (both on 3), but has only made 12 Premier League starts this season, which is nine less than Loftus Cheek and 20 less than Eric Dier who has played the most of the midfielders in the squad.

Can Southgate find a solution in time

Southgate may have already searched and found his solution in March’s friendlies however. In those games against the Netherlands and Italy he decided to opt for a 3-1-4-2 formation which could be a possible system that he uses at the tournament. This allows for just one holding midfielder, likely to be Jordan Henderson, and the two wing backs pushing forwards to support two more attacking midfielders behind two strikers. This was used against the Netherlands with Jesse Lingard and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain in front of Henderson with both Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling chosen upfront. With just one holding midfielder in the side it allowed for more of the attacking players on the pitch, but England still struggled to break both Italy and the Netherlands down with just a goal to show for their efforts in each fixture.

The ‘exciting’ England side that Southgate is putting together hasn’t been producing exciting football so far during his reign. In Englands last 5 matches they’ve scored just 3 goals and despite the quality of some of the opposition those stats aren’t exactly filling us with confidence. The attacking players that England have available have shown in the Premier League that they have what it takes to create chances with their performances in the Premier League but they can’t seem to find that space in an England shirt.

The most promising part of this England squad is the attacking players that Southgate has available but there’s a chance that they won’t be able to impress in Russia. If the midfielders behind them are unable to get the ball forward to them quick enough then England could be stuck playing in front of a deep defensive line, especially in the games against Tunisia and Panama where they will likely sit off England. If Southgate doesn’t find a way for the attacking players to get involved then there could be huge problems in Russia for England and it could be another disappointing early exit for the Three Lions…