Football Features

“England’s midfield is a problem” – Five Things Learned as Czech Republic upset Southgate’s men

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:07, 11 October 2019 | Updated: 15:32, 12 February 2020

In a frustrating night of football, Czech Republic came of behind to beat England 2-1.

Things were always low key, with neither side looking particularly sharp especially in attack. What did we learn as England lost their first tournament qualifier for a decade?

1. 4-2-3-done

England thrived playing 3-5-2 at the World Cup. They’ve been less impressive (sort of) playing 4-3-3, largely because their midfield is incredibly pedestrian, but the strength of their defence and attack have seen them through. Here in the Czech Republic, Gareth Southgate switched to a 4-2-3-1 system in order to maximise Mason Mount’s chances to excel as he has done for Chelsea.

But here’s the thing: when he’s wearing the blue of Chelsea, Mount is playing ahead of the likes of Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic; two players with exceptional technique, skill and vision. For England he’s playing ahead of Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice, two limited passers of the ball. Rice is prosaic but can’t take hold of games and get the ball forward to Mount and Henderson is, when removed from Jurgen Klopp’s system of play, simply a runner, a trier – not an elite footballer, not even a very good footballer.

So 4-2-3-1 isolated Mason Mount, rendering him next to useless and allowed the Czechs to fight their way back into the game. And then even in the second half when England switched to 4-3-3, it was too late, the rhythm had been set and England couldn’t raise themselves. Probably didn’t help that Henderson and Rice both played 90 minutes and, when a change was made, it was Mount that came off (and Harry Winks, England‘s best midfielder by a country mile, didn’t come on). England‘s midfield is a problem, and it’s not going away.

2. Better late than never

Zdenek Ondrasek is 30-years-old and had never played for the Czech Republic. He’s had a journeyman career even by Czech footballing standards and is currently plying his trade in the USA for FC Dallas. His form there earned him a call-up, and he came off the bench just after the hour mark against England.

Immediately Ondrasek’s direct running made a difference. He had a great chance to set a team-mate up but elected to shoot near-post and Pickford saved. It was a mistake, sure, but England had been warned as to the dangers of his movement, a warning they didn’t heed as with five minutes left Ondrasek made a spectacular run, peeling off the English defenders into the space where the non-existent defensive midfielders should have been. Luka Masopust’s pass was met with a thumping finish from the veteran debutant, who sealed a historic win for his nation late in the game and late in his career.

3. The Kingpen

Harry Kane is the kind of striker who will always score goals. That’s not just because he’s obviously very good at football, but because he takes penalties. Very good penalties. When Kane steps up to the spot, you’re more certain that he will score than you would be with almost anyone else in the world game.

Paradoxically he’s missed two for England, including his previous one against Kosovo, but when he was called on tonight he had no problem standing tall and making a simple finish. That draws him level with Frank Lampard on nine penalties scored for England, a record. His next penalty will see him stand alone at the top, a fitting crown for England‘s Kingpen.

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4. England’s Toffee Defending

England conceded not five minutes after taking the lead and they did so from a corner. The Three Lions were completely disorganised and unable to cope with what was a simple Czech move. A low corner was nodded on for Jakub Brabec to move onto and smack home.

This also wasn’t the first time the Czechs seriously threatened England from set-pieces despite the presence of Harry Maguire, nor the last. What’s the problem? Well two of England‘s three-man defensive core play for Everton (Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane) and Everton are really bad at defending set-pieces.

The Toffees have let five goals in from set-pieces already this Premier League season and importing that weakness from Goodison Park gave the Czechs a way back into the game. And there lurk better sides than the Czechs out there. If England want to progress they surely have to replace one of Keane or Pickford so the core of their defensive shell isn’t based on a soft Everton back-line.

5. England stalling

Whether you look at the inability of the front three to kill teams (although Raheem Sterling was good once again and the other England players need to get on his level) and how the midfield can’t control games or even protect the defence, and then even the defence itself seems to have an error-per-game in it since it became two thirds Toffee… England have weaknesses.

The 2018 World Cup was such a magnificent success undone essentially by Southgate being unwilling to sacrifice his clearly injured star striker for a more mobile option to keep his counter-attack fresh and sharp and Kyle Walker falling asleep at the back. But what’s frustrating is that beyond introducing Jadon Sancho, England haven’t really improved since then.

The World Cup should have been the start of something, instead there is this creeping feeling that it may end up being an incredible false dawn as The Three Lions continually get in their own way and stop themselves from progressing.