Southgate's midfield experiment fails, England face a tough challenge

Southgate's midfield experiment fails, England face a tough challenge

Frankfurt, Germany — Trent Alexander-Arnold The midfield experiment at Euro 2024 has certainly failed, as he has been placed centrally rather than in his usual right-back role. England manager Gareth Southgate must now ask himself whether he is sticking to a plan that has been in place for at least a year, which has yielded no impetus so far, or making something else up in the middle of the tournament.

It is a troubling place to be. The Three Lions were lucky to escape Frankfurt with a 1-1 draw against Denmark on Thursday. Worryingly for Southgate, they have cut short the period of good form they had against Serbia and extended the period of bad, looking hopelessly disorganised and unable to exert meaningful control for more than two-thirds of the game.

Alexander-Arnold is undoubtedly a talented and versatile footballer, and despite being deployed in a “hybrid” role for Liverpool where he moves centrally in attack, he has been unable to perform for England as a midfielder who can penetrate defences with his passing vision. He is not the only one to blame for this – a collective malaise engulfed England from almost the moment he was signed harry kane gave them the lead on 18 minutes – but Southgate's hopes that Alexander-Arnold could provide a new energy to his midfield look to be proven more misplaced with each passing minute.

Despite all the individual talent Southgate has at his disposal, he is right to say England lack a playmaker, which has been their weakness in the past: Italy's Andrea Pirlo in 2012, Croatia's Kevin Pietersen in 2014, Kevin Pietersen in 2015, Kevin Pietersen in 2016, Kevin Pietersen in 2017, Kevin Pietersen in 2018, 2019… Luka Modric In 2018, Frankie de Jong in the 2019 Nations League semi-finals, or Marco Verratti And Jorginho In previous Euros, these players are capable of setting the pace of the team, the puppet master pulling the strings.

Southgate acknowledged on Wednesday that Alexander-Arnold is not that type of player, but “what I look for is that range of passing and that ability to open up a defence that can block space” and then added, “We know it's a work in progress.” That last line is something of an understatement on the evidence of England's opening two games.

Arsenal's Declan Rice He has emerged as one of Europe's finest midfielders, but his best attributes are positioning, ball-winning and, more recently, moving forward with purpose. The idea of ​​a double pivot with Alexander-Arnold alongside him is that the Liverpool player's impressive quarterback-style passing range will bring out the best in England's rich attacking talent, while his experience as a defender helps further his understanding of out-of-possession requirements in that position.

Alexander-Arnold recently claimed he has spent almost a year consulting Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland about the details of his midfield role. A reliable source told ESPN the idea was first brought up ahead of the last Euros, for which Alexander-Arnold missed out due to injury.

However, the idea is far from being implemented in England's matches in the tournament, with the gamble on the midfield not turning out to be profitable.

Expressing his thoughts at Deutsche Bank Park, Southgate admitted it is a problem he has struggled with since taking charge in 2016, with England's lack of control in midfield being a chronic failing of theirs in the tournament.

“We've been trying to find a solution in midfield for seven or eight years,” Southgate said after the match. “If we didn't have Declan Rice for the last few years, I don't know where we would be.

“unfortunately, Kelvin [Phillips] It was not possible for us in this tournament and [Jordan Henderson] Same, so we're trying to find something different. Some of these have worked, some of these haven't worked so well, but this has been a persistent problem over the last few years, we've tried to find the best way to solve it and we'll continue to do so in the coming weeks.”

The biggest takeaway for Southgate is that his brilliant plan came together. It was exactly the kind of test it was designed for: Denmark sat with a five-man defence that was resilient and difficult to break down outside of possession, but ended up dictating terms in the middle of the pitch.

Pierre-Emile Højbjerg And Morten Hulmandwho equalised with a superb long-range strike in the 34th minute, occupying that area of ​​the pitch Christian Eriksen The forward fluttered between the lines. His fluidity defied the argument that a poor pitch could easily explain England's staccato rhythm.

It was true that the goal England conceded was due to misplaced passes and large gaps in midfield as England were slow to contain Hulmond. England constantly lost possession under pressure.

Southgate's decision to replace Alexander-Arnold Conor Gallagher The decision, made in the 54th minute, was more reprehensible than anything he said afterwards. Southgate usually waits until well after the hour to change play; it was only the fifth time in 21 major tournament games he has made the first substitution of the match.

What happened next was even more shocking as Kane was removed from the match. Ollie Watkins when England needed a goal, which was part of a triple change that also saw Eberechi Eze And Jarrod Bowen replace the Bukayo Saka And Phil FodenAfter this there was some improvement.

Southgate held a meeting with the players on Tuesday and explained why there was some negativity in the reaction following England's opening win over Serbia. He may need to organise another match in the coming days, after thousands of England supporters inside the stadium booed the team at full-time.

“Probably the biggest thing is that we have to accept the environment we are in and the expectations that are around us,” Southgate said. “We have to rise to that challenge. At the moment we are a bit behind that. Ultimately it is my responsibility. I am the manager and I have to guide this group in the best way possible. To achieve extraordinary things, you have to go through some tough moments. Today was undoubtedly a tough moment, especially towards the end of the game.

“We have to find the best way to solve this. Of course we need the fans, you know we need the fans, but I have to say they have been fantastic, absolutely fantastic in the stadium. And I can completely understand their disappointment with the way we played, but I would say there has been no lack of effort from these boys at the moment.

“But we have to find a better way to play, we have to find more quality in what we’re doing. I don’t think people will look at them and say, ‘They don’t care.’ If anything, we care too much at the moment and we have to find a way to find the right balance.”

England still top Group C, and a win over Slovenia in Cologne on Tuesday would secure top spot. Qualification is certainly the first thing they can achieve, but the ultimate goal of winning a first European Championship still looks a long way off.

One of Gallagher's, Kobbi Mainu And Adam Wharton This must surely come into his thoughts against Slovenia. The fact that he has to consider such a dramatic rethink is quite worrying.

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