How Gareth Southgate can fix the problem that keeps costing England in semi-finals
For the second year in a row, England have lost an international semi-final.
It’s not quite as bad as Argentina’s impeccable three year run of final defeats, but it’s not a good habit to be developing. And what’s most frustrating is that both losses shared a remarkable number of similarities. In fact the 2019 defeat played out almost like a sequel to 2018’s loss, but like, one of those really bad sequels that just retreads the beats of the original. More Men in Black II than Empire Strikes Back.
England opened the scoring early on through a set-piece, in 2018 it was Kieran Trippier’s free-kick and 2019 saw Marcus Rashford cooly slot home a penalty. Then England look mildly threatening on the break without ever grabbing sort of control over the game.
Eventually a world-class opposing midfielder, Luka Modric in 2018, Frenkie de Jong in 2019, used their manipulation of match tempo to begin truly heaping pressure on the England defence. And sure, at first the defence stood up to that pressure but after a while it got to be too much and individual errors brought England tumbling down in extra-time.
The kneejerk reaction is to blame the defenders for making individual errors, or perhaps even the entire concept of playing out from the back. The clever reaction is to blame Southgate for introducing Harry Kane (or sticking with a clearly hobbled Kane in 2018) and thus robbing England’s attack of a crucial bit of pace up the middle, thus making life easier for the opposing defenders.
Neither are the correct reaction, however. The real reason England lost to Netherlands, as well as Croatia, as well as whoever will beat them in 2020 if nothing changes, is because of midfield. As mentioned before, England’s midfield has a terrible habit of never grabbing hold of games. There’s little to no control of tempo and possession and that makes it far too easy for opponents to steadily build pressure over time.
At the World Cup, England had a midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard. Against the Dutch it was Declan Rice, Fabian Delph and Ross Barkley. None of them was able to handle their opponents nor get a grip on the tempo, and as a result England got swamped. Now, sure, part of that is by design: England play vertical, transition football. But even a counter-attacking side needs to be able to control games, or you have the real risk of being overrun as England were against the Dutch.
People may point to Liverpool’s Champions League success despite fielding a workman-like midfield, and that’s true, but Liverpool also have one of the three best centre-backs on planet earth. England cannot fall back on such a titan, so they need a midfield that can do more.
But how do they go about creating a midfield unit that can do more? Part of the reason Southgate constructed his midfield like he did in 2018 was that it allowed him to get his most talented midfielders on the pitch, regardless of role. In 2019 you can see, through the introduction of Declan Rice, that Southgate wants to address the issue of a lack of control, but it’s not enough.
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So how could England solve this semi-final hoodoo? Two players are key: Spurs’ Harry Winks and Leicester’s James Maddison. These two youngsters (Winks is 23, Maddison 22) are supremely talented, but more than that, they play in such a style that would allow England to dominate the ball and actually control a game via possession.
Winks is a consummate midfielder. In Spurs’ last two Champions League seasons no one has completed as many passes per-90 minutes as Harry Winks. The Englishman has racked up 61.01 per-90, at a completion rate of 91.1% that is also unmatched. He keeps the ball better than any other Englishman, which is essential if you want to control tempo, and was one of the best players on the pitch in this season’s Champions League final; in fact Spurs’ comeback attempt went off the rails when Winks was subbed off.
Maddison, meanwhile, adds a creative potency to midfield. He too is capable of circulating possession in midfield, but his real strength lies in supplying the forwards. No one created more chances in the 2018/19 Premier League season than his 100. An incredible 48 of his chances came from set-pieces too, and given the importance Gareth Southgate has placed on dead-ball situations, having Maddison in the side would not only help The Three Lions keep the ball better, but it would return the potency of the set-pieces that served them so well in Russia.
The Leicester midfielder, recently linked with a £60m move to Manchester United, is also something of a goal threat. He’s scored three goals direct from free-kicks in the Premier League this season, which is another league-high.
The true brilliance of this pair is that they are tactically flexible. Winks is a player who is comfortable as a pivot or in a more orthodox central midfield role. So he could operate deeper, perhaps next to Declan Rice in a double pivot with Maddison ahead as a no. 10 if England were to play 4-2-3-1 as a base system to unleash the attacking players. This would be a solid and stable option.
But then if Southgate wanted to be more expansive and play 4-3-3 or a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond with Rice playing at the base then Maddison and Winks ahead of him in a system designed to encourage fast passing, he could do that too. Maddison can play possession and counter-attacking football, giving England the ability to switch style without making a substitution – a very useful trait for a tactical coach like Southgate who has shown keen desire to have his side be tactically versatile.
Hell, if England wanted to go all-out then that too is an option. Southgate could move Winks to the base of midfield where his ability to keep the ball circulating would allow England to always be on the attack (and he could drop between John Stones and Harry Maguire to form a pseudo back three and allow both full-backs to bomb forward). Maddison would play ahead of Winks but do so alongside a more offensive midfielder like Dele Alli or Ruben Loftus-Cheek, someone who could get into the box and provide a genuine goal threat.
The key fact is that Maddison and Winks must remain in the side so that England can retain control no matter the moment in the match. Whether attacking or defending, these two know how to do it with the ball in such a way that others around them look better. The likes of Eric Dier are too limited and whilst Jordan Henderson has a lot of talents, none of them involve making Virgil van Dijk and Alisson into Englishmen, so he should take a back seat now.
If England had been able to take hold of the ball and slow the game down against Croatia and the Dutch instead of constantly turning it over looking for fast-breaks, then there’s a genuine chance that one of those semi-final defeats would have ended in victory. The margins were so fine that England just needed a bit of control. The kind of control Maddison and Winks could give them.
And if Maddison and Winks are included and featured in the future then maybe, just maybe, England will be tactically versatile enough to finally get back to a final for the first time since 1966.