Southgate’s ‘Exciting’ Midfield Has Improved Since Croatia Heartache

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It was a curious formation. England’s 3-5-2 at the World Cup in Russia had perhaps done all it could. The turning point came around 35 minutes into their semi-final against Croatia. Gradually, a match which for half an hour had been run by the cohesive counterattacking Three Lions started to escape their grasp. The Balkan nation had managed to ride out the storm only one down. Now their quality and their experience would begin to tell. England’s three-man midfield, with no discernible holding midfielder, began to lose control.

Wind the clock forward three years, Gareth Southgate prepares his side for their next major tournament after the one that got away. His first task to negotiate: an opener against the battle-hardened Croats. Talking to about that Croatia defeat, the England manager said: “We were [at the] very early stages of developing the team. I think we created a way of playing — just ahead of that tournament — that got the best out of the strengths of the group that we had.”

There seems to be a consensus that it is broadly true that England maximised their efficiency in the tournament. The first match (barring the group-stage dead rubber against Belgium) in which England lost the battle for possession, they crashed out of the tournament to the older and wiser Croatians. Is England’s midfield in a better place than it was then? Those banking on an England trophy this summer will need it to be.

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“We knew that Croatia at that time — [Luka] Modrić, [Ivan] Rakitić, [Milan] Badelj, [Marcelo] Brozović — their midfield [was] very strong. Obviously, [Mateo] Kovačić [is] at Chelsea now. I would say it’s the strongest part of their team. [In] our midfield, definitely more players have emerged. Kalvin [Phillips] has come into the side, Declan Rice has come into the group, the younger players, the slightly more attacking players, Jude [Bellingham is] just starting to emerge.

“The future for our team when you look at the age of all of those players is really exciting. It means that we can play in different ways. We’ve got the balance of the squad to play different systems. Our job again, as always, is to prepare the team for each opposition, find the best way of playing for each opponent, and we feel better equipped to cope with different sorts of tactical challenges as well.”

The busy midfield operator and set-piece-taker James Ward-Prowse can count himself unlucky not to be heading into this tournament with England. But they go into the competition with a small but talented group of midfielders. Compared to the players in that position who travelled out to Repino three years ago, it’s all change. Jordan Henderson is in the squad again, but he has since won the UEFA Champions League and the Premier League, as well as the FWA Player of the Year for 2020. His inclusion this summer understandably divides opinion due to his lack of game-time since February nursing a groin injury. His qualities both footballing and not, are doubtless though. His inclusion is the only constant.

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Jude Bellingham is in line for more game-time than the Liverpool captain this summer. The 17-year-old has shone with Borussia Dortmund this season and plays like a man twice his age with tough tackling, clever bursts forward, and a simple passing style that can only help a team desperate to hold onto the ball better than previous iterations have done.

The fantastic Declan Rice of West Ham United is arguably England’s best midfielder, and could have made a lot of difference in Russia had he emerged slightly earlier. The same is true for his best friend since the two of them were eight-year-olds — Chelsea’s Mason Mount. England’s only out-and-out No10 in the squad, the 22-year-old told in March that he doesn’t consider himself “undroppable.” However, Southgate must see him as the nearest thing; he is a favourite of the manager’s.

Finally, Leeds United ace Kalvin Phillips was brought into the England team for the September 2020 international break, before he had even kicked a ball in the Premier League. He told that his immediate priority was not to make the European Championships squad that he now forms part of. “I think it was just to take every training session, every day, as it comes,” he said of his main priority. “I try and do my best every day. I think, when it came to the games as well, I just try and show what I can do, what difference I can make in certain areas, and I believe that I did that throughout the games [for England in the autumn]. Obviously, I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be involved in a major tournament like this and I’ll keep trying my best throughout the tournament.”

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Those are the five men tasked with controlling the tempo of matches of the highest level over the next month. A huge responsibility for a quintet with an average age of just 23.

At Wembley early afternoon on Sunday, in scorching heat at nearly 30 degrees, England’s long and troubled history against Croatia will grow another chapter. As they brush shoulders with one of the world’s strongest midfields, a chance presents itself to assess how much England’s own midfield has improved. Will it be up to the task?

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