Football Features

Southgate lacks a midfield spark: Five things learned as England seal third place at Nations League Finals

By Harry Edwards

Published: 17:25, 9 June 2019

England confirmed third place in the inaugural Uefa Nations League finals, beating Switzerland 6-5 on penalties.

With neither side able to break the deadlock after 120 minutes, the first-ever penalty shootout in the Nations League took place. Both teams scored their first five penalties, taking the shootout to sudden death, with Jordan Pickford saving from Josip Drmic to win the game.

So, what did we learn?

1. England missing midfield magic

For some, the Uefa Nations League was meant to cap off a wonderful season for English football. After the two all-English European cup finals, football was bound to come home again with a first trophy since the 1997 Tournoi de France, but it was not meant to be.

England’s semi-final defeat against Netherlands came largely due to being outclassed in midfield and the third-place playoff against Switzerland brought more of the same.

The midfield trio of Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Fabian Delph were lacking the spark England needed to get through a well-disciplined Switzerland side, set up to pack the middle of the pitch with three centre-backs.

And to make matters worse, apart from Jordan Henderson, Gareth Southgate didn’t really have anyone to call upon, capable of changing the game which begs the question of who should be England’s starting midfielders looking ahead to Euro 2020?

After the defeat to Netherlands, Harry Winks’ name was mentioned a lot as the missing midfield man, but there is also the small matter of Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Had it not been for an Achilles injury, the Chelsea midfielder would have undoubtedly been starting against Netherlands and could have made all the difference.

Then there’s James Maddison, who is only not in the England senior squad so he can focus his energy on the Under-21 European champions later this summer. The future in midfield does look bright, England just need to have the right players in the squad.

2. England’s lop-sided full-back problems

At right-back, England look set for the future with Trent Alexander-Arnold – who tormented Switzerland with his exquisite crossing – but the Uefa Nations League has shown the Three Lions may have problems on the opposite flank.

Against Netherlands, Ben Chilwell was poor, giving Steven Bergwijn far too much time and space on the ball to get at England’s back line while also not contributing enough going forward.

And his replacement in Sunday’s third-place play-off against Switzerland was just as poor. Danny Rose had a torrid first-half, with wing-back Kevin Mbabu giving the Spurs man serious problems. And though he did improve offensively after half-time, defensively there were still gaps, with most of Switzerland’s better chances coming down England’s left.

Rose was eventually taken off as England looked for something different, with right-back Kyle Walker coming on to play out of position. But the question for England is, who can step up in the long term?

3. Joe Gomez cements his spot ahead of John Stones

One of seven changes Southgate made from the defeat to Netherlands on Thursday was introducing Joe Gomez to the back line, alongside Harry Maguire.

John Stones was the man to sit out, after his error-strewn performance, and the Manchester City centre-back may find himself out of the England team for the next round of fixtures in September.

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Gomez, who had enjoyed a spell as Liverpool’s starting centre-back with Virgil van Dijk before injury hampered his season, looked rock solid and showed clear calmness on the ball as England continued to play out from the back.

The 22-year-old completed a ridiculous 95% of his 81 passes against Switzerland, misplacing just two. Only Maguire (95) and Eric Dier (99) completed more passes than Gomez, but the Liverpool man also chipped in with four clearances, three interceptions and won all three of his attempted tackles.

4. Manuel Akanji the foundation on which Switzerland can build

Yes, England were wasteful with possession and should have done better with their chances, but the presence of Manuel Akanji at the heart of Switzerland’s defence cannot be understated.

The 23-year-old Borussia Dortmund centre-back was brilliant as part of Switzerland’s three-man defence, dealing with pretty much everything thrown his way. He completed all five of his attempted tackles through the game, more than any other player on the pitch and also added six interceptions – another high for the match.

But it wasn’t just the defending, Akanji also showed his promise in building from the back, completing more passes than any of his team-mates – not to mention confidently scoring his penalty in the shootout. Dortmund have a gem on their hands.

5. VAR is England’s real enemy

Forget all of England’s problems that have shown themselves over the past few days; the Three Lions’ biggest enemy is VAR.

Had it not been for VAR, England would be spending their Sunday afternoon preparing for the Uefa Nations League final against Portugal, after Jesse Lingard’s late goal against Netherlands was rightfully chalked off for offside following consultation with technology.

And if VAR hadn’t been consulted again on Sunday, England would not have had to deal with extra-time and then penalties, as Callum Wilson was seen to have fouled Manuel Akanji inside the area before poking in from close range.

Obviously, if England are to have any real success in tournaments, like in 1966 they will need to try even harder with VAR now here to stay.