England look stronger in midfield since suffering at the hands of Luka Modric when they lost to Croatia in the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup. Gareth Southgate has Declan Rice to protect his defence and he has more creativity at his disposal thanks to the emergence of some talented youngsters. Plenty of England’s rivals would love to have players as good as Jude Bellingham, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden.
The challenge for Southgate, though, is finding the right balance before his side’s reunion with Croatia in their Euro 2020 opener on 13 June. The manager was criticised for being too conservative when England laboured against Belgium and Denmark in the Nations League last autumn. Although Southgate felt that a 3-4-3 system gave his team more balance, he was accused of timidity when he used Rice alongside Kalvin Phillips or Jordan Henderson in central midfield.
England often lacked thrust and invention. Harry Kane looked isolated and frustrated up front at times. So far, though, Southgate has resisted calls to revert to 4-3-3. He worries about his unconvincing defence being caught out, and remembers Modric and Ivan Rakitic taking the game away from England’s midfield in Russia three years ago.
Yet there is an argument that Southgate should trust his players to relieve pressure not by grimly sitting back, but by taking the ball and supporting the attack. With Henderson injured, this month’s World Cup qualifiers against San Marino, Albania and Poland are a chance to be bold. Southgate should not forget that England were more enterprising when Mason Mount, who has mostly played as a No 10 for club and country, dropped back into central midfield in recent wins over Iceland and Ireland. “We’d like to look at a couple of different ways of playing if we can,” Southgate said.
It is worth having another look at Mount, who has been Chelsea’s best player this season, in a deeper role. He would have freedom alongside Rice, who mops up brilliantly for West Ham, and it would allow Southgate to start Foden, the gifted Manchester City 20-year-old, or Grealish, who is not in this squad because of injury.
“Mason can definitely play deeper in certain systems and in certain games,” Southgate said. “He has great qualities to be able to receive the ball and connect the game forward quickly and give us another attacking player.”
Yet Southgate did not sound convinced. “There will be some matches where we will be a little bit light without the ball,” he continued. “Mason is excellent at pressing but not as experienced covering those spaces and not as strong as some of those players you’d come up against in that area of the pitch. I think it is an interesting role to help develop but it’s rare that he’s done it with his club.
“Phil plays more off the wide, No 10 or a false 9 rather than a No 8 for Man City. Jack an 11 or 10 with Villa, very rarely as a No 8. The club do that for a reason and we would be naive to miss those clues.”
England do not have great depth in central midfield. They have called up Bellingham, who has been running Champions League games at the age of 17, but Borussia Dortmund are unlikely to release the youngster because of Covid-19 quarantine laws in Germany. Henderson is out and Tottenham’s Harry Winks has been dropped. Phillips and James Ward-Prowse lack international experience.
It means Southgate has a reason to err on the side of caution, even though he is pleased that Rice is having a good season for West Ham. “It’s great to see him in a team that are in a different position in the league,” he said. “You want your players to be involved in matches where they’re pushing for Europe. He is outstanding at recovering balls. There’s still more to come with the ball. We see moments of it.”
Yet Rice is only 22. “In terms of running the biggest games in the Euros, that’s going to be a huge challenge when you look at just our opponents in the first game,” Southgate said. He reeled off the threats in Croatia’s midfield, naming Modric, Rakitic, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic, and memories of England’s World Cup heartbreak came flooding back.