Football Features

Serbia 0-1 England: Rating Three Lions’ midfield trio from Euro 2024 opener

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 22:00, 16 June 2024 | Updated: 12:42, 18 June 2024

England made a winning start to Euro 2024 as they ran out 1-0 victors over Serbia in Gelsenkirchen this evening.

Gareth Southgate’s men — including many survivors from their beaten European Championship finalist squad three summers ago — proved too much for their Group C rivals, and with Slovenia and Denmark drawing before kickoff, England holds the early advantage.

Understandably, great expectations come with nerves, and Dragan Stojković’s side boasted several match-winners, but they were no match for the Three Lions calibre of superstars who consigned any pre-tournament jitters — symbolised by one win across five outings (two losses) — to history.

Many observers had touted Serbia’s strengths, particularly being the tallest team in the competition, which at times paid off when it came to defensive aerial duels. However, there was a chasm in quality between the sides, with Stojković’s team never looking like threatening Jordan Pickford’s goal and quickly resorting to physicality. This was illustrated by the fact that England won seven fouls in the first half, which is the most fouls the Three Lions have won in the first half of a European Championship match since against Switzerland at Euro 2004 (8).

It’s often said that matches are either won or lost in midfield, so a strong, balanced centre is paramount—even more so during an international tournament when games come thick and fast in a short window. Southgate, not exactly renowned for his tactical acumen, has somewhat stumbled upon what could turn out to be a winning formula: a midfield triumvirate made up of Alexander-Arnold (controller), Rice (box-to-box midfielder), and Bellingham (incisive playmaker). Today marked its debut and very well could be the blueprint for any England success this summer.

England midfield ratings

Jude Bellingham – 8

All eyes were on Jude Bellingham, who enjoyed a storybook debut campaign with Real Madrid, winning La Liga and the European Cup while being named player of the season in the former competition. In the lead-up to tonight’s opening fixture, England head coach Southgate said that Bellingham — the first European player to make an appearance at three different major international tournaments before turning 21 — was “one of a number of very important players in the team – we shouldn’t be expecting him to carry the load.”

To say he’s fast becoming a man for the biggest occasions and put in a decisive shift would be an understatement. After starting strongly on the front foot and practically camping in Serbia’s half, Bellingham left Andrija Zivkovic with no chance to nod home Bukayo Saka’s deflected cross. It’s what Los Blancos supporters came to love and what he’s been doing all season: late arrivals into the box that ends with a goal.

This effort meant Bellingham became the first player to score for England at both the World Cup and European Championship while playing his club football outside England. Furthermore, after scoring just two goals in his first 28 appearances for England, he’s now registered in back-to-back international games.

“The goalkeeper has no chance – it’s right in the corner. The run was superb, as was the timing of the pass. England have gone straight after the opposition, and being patient with their passing for the first 15 minutes has proved worthwhile,” Alan Shearer noted on BBC commentary.

Trent Alexander-Arnold – 7

Another topic heavily discussed heading into this game was Trent Alexander-Arnold’s role. He was sure to start but not in the familiar right-back role he has come to own with club side Liverpool. Instead, Southgate opted to use him in central midfield, which he has done on more than one occasion before. This naturally started a conversation with former England internationals weighing in on the decision. Wayne Rooney, in particular, felt it was not the wisest move, but tonight’s performance may reassure the former record England goalscorer.

That said, during the 2023/24 season, Reds boss Jürgen Klopp effectively used Alexander-Arnold in a hybrid role, a playmaker in a fullback’s guise. It’s not even a new phenomenon, as defender-turned-pundit Jamie Carragher spoke back in 2019 about how Alexander-Arnold would end up playing a similar role to Kevin De Bruyne at Manchester City, noting that the England international had started his playing career in central midfield before transforming into a right-sided defender, where he’s flourished under Liverpool’s former German tactician.

He didn’t last the full 90 minutes, having come off after the hour mark, but it’s worth noting that only Bellingham (14) made more line-breaking passes than Alexander-Arnold (8) before he was substituted.

Declan Rice – 7.5

Life, though, was made easy for Alexander-Arnold, who slotted into a midfield consisting of the mercurial Bellingham and the diligent Declan Rice, who had an excellent outing. Deservedly praised for his play at Arsenal in a debut season just gone, Rice’s positioning, pitch coverage, and use of the ball allowed England to transition smoothly.

Having a 6′ 1″ physique is such a bonus for him. Rice uses every centimetre of those legs to hook balls away from attackers, seemingly at the final moment, and make crucial blocks. “Rice is doing his duties in front of the back four, winning the ball,” Shearer acknowledged.

Rice, who became the first player to win possession 10+ times at Euro 2024, played his role in England keeping another European Championship shutout. They’ve done so now in their last five group-stage matches, the longest such run in the competition’s history.

Looking at the game as a whole, a win is a win, even if the second half wasn’t enjoyable from England’s perspective. They hung on for the victory, and there will be concerns. The expected goals tally of 0.17 vs 0.54 summed up the encounter. Southgate will be hoping for more of the first 30 minutes going forward in the competition.