You’ll Never Win Anything with That Midfield

Following a disappointing performance at the inaugural UEFA Nation’s League that saw England left red-faced against Holland and frustrated as chances went begging against Switzerland. Whilst many were quick to lay into John Stones for his mistakes as the tide turned in Guimarães, for me the problem lay higher up the pitch. Gareth Southgate, who has made so many excellent decisions since becoming England manager, selected Declan Rice, Fabian Delph, and Ross Barkley to start against Holland, a decision which left me agog. I only hoped that it would not matter, given the strength of the team elsewhere. And lo and behold, they went missing in the Portuguese night and suddenly England were having to prepare for a third-fourth place play-off instead of a final.

Beyond Barkley surrendering the ball to Memphis Depay for the decisive third goal, I do not remember a single action that the midfield three performed in the semi-final. That is unacceptable at any level of football, let alone at an international tournament. Frankly, I feel that Delph and Barkley are not worthy of their place in the squad. In spite of his double against Montenegro in the last international break, it is important not to get carried away with statistics like this, because his general performance was probably not worthy of the goals. Then, his season has mostly consisted of high fiving Mateo Kovacic as they were constantly subbed on and off for each other. When he was on the pitch, his impact was minimal. It was not until Maurizio Sarri was strong armed into selecting Ruben Loftus-Cheek that Eden Hazard had somebody to help take the team on his back. And Fabian Delph only completed 11 Premier League appearances last term, not a number that should be enough for England selection, and his actual ability does not warrant being let off for his lack of pitch exposure. Personally, I give a pass to Declan Rice as he was making only his second international start and is clearly a talented player and may be of use for England down the road, but his reputation was certainly done no favours by his performances in Portugal.

The inability of England’s midfield to make any sort of positive impact against Holland gives greater credence to my questions over the omission of players such as James Maddison. The Leicester youngster will be involved as the Young Lions travel to Italy to compete in the UEFA European Under 21 Championships later this summer, but I cannot help but feel that he could have been of use to England here. Since switching from Norwich last summer, Maddison has impressed playing both as a ‘Number 10’ and ‘Number 8’ role for Claude Puel and Brendan Rodgers, with his creativity and ease on the ball being something dearly missed as England fell to a second consecutive semi-final defeat in the space of 12 months. And although his game time has been limited due to an injury-hit campaign, Spurs’ Harry Winks is far more comfortable in possession than any of the midfielders that travelled with Gareth Southgate’s squad, and his inclusion in the provisional 27-man squad, before being axed from the 23-man squad was a surprise his involvement in the Champions League final meant that there was little to gain from him being included at all if the intention was not for him to definitely be in the full squad, playing no role in this England camp despite being in the initial squad. Even keeping James Ward-Prowse would have offered more substance to the midfield than was present against Holland.

The decision to bring along Fabian Delph was the biggest mystery, as his 11 Premier League appearances in 2018/19 was two fewer than Phil Foden, who is blatantly more talented than Delph and the main barrier between him and the England squad is his lack of first team football. But, by the logic of Delph then it would make sense to bring the 19 year-old to Portugal, where his forward movement and experience in Pep Guardiola’s possession-based system would have helped to create more for England’s forward line and prevent the game from slipping away from England by helping them to control the game better, as the Dutch with players like Frenkie De Jong able to pull the strings in midfield.

Looking ahead to next summer, our midfield selections need to be more confident. Ever since Southgate has come in, England have been on an upward trend and are now certainly among the best international sides, and we should act like it. Holland were the side that should have been scared of us and what we could do, not the other way around. The midfield that played looked more suited to stifling the opposition than asserting ourselves, which as a team that had been in a World Cup semi-final just a year earlier playing against a team that did not even qualify for that tournament, should have been the aim. There is certainly room for hard-working players like Jordan Henderson or Declan Rice, but it should be reserved for opposition such as France, where possession of the ball will be at a premium. But, playing against the majority of teams, setting the tempo and pattern of the game will be our responsibility and that is not something that is possible if a midfield anything like that one lines up at the start of Euro 2020.