Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Liverpool’s old head is the missing link in an English midfield that lacks authority and calm

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Jack Grealish was the fall type for England’s unimaginative game against Hungary, but the creative block continued to emerge

The call for Jude Bellingham came up before the final whistle, Borussia Dortmund’s urgent young Englishman was the knee-jerk response to England’s lackluster performance against Hungary for angry Wembley.

His strength, athleticism, drive and skill would solve the problem that England’s redesigned midfield was in no time at all, it said. The failure of Phil Foden, Mason Mount and Declan Rice to form a cohesive unit limited the potential of the English attack and allowed Hungary to take control early.

All is not lost. Foden and Rice are the same dynamic talents they always have been. However, Bellingham alone is not the answer. Indeed, he could become part of the problem where he bears the burden of responsibility. In particular, England’s unimaginative demeanor reminded Gareth Southgate of the value of the experience.

What England lacked in this converted center was an old mind that added authority and calm. What they had instead were three young guys charging around, actually trying too hard to please them to prove themselves when no proof was required.

Mount, Foden, and Rice looked like new boys on their first day of school, uniforms immaculate, shoes shiny and clean, no hair out of place. The surroundings seemed to be overcrowded, to hamper performance. It was only when England admitted that instinct took over and England began to play.

Jack Grealish was the catalyst and remained the team’s sharpest blade until Southgate removed him in search of a bigger cut. When Grealish has a flaw, it takes too much touch. And often, he chooses to come in and over, which can slow the game down when a more direct line of scrimmage is required.

But take it off? That suggests Southgate has yet to be convinced. His response on Tuesday was to give Bukayo Saka half an hour to inject some pace. It didn’t work because Grealish wasn’t the problem. The midfield just didn’t work. Mount was the least effective of the three, but seems to have a special place in Southgate’s sympathies.

The obvious change was Jordan Henderson for Mount. Henderson appeared alongside Tammy Abraham, but as a replacement for Rahem Sterling and Harry Kane, not for the Chelsea intrigue.

Southgate was right to change the shape of the team. His preference for two defensive midfielders at the EM was a one-tournament solution that emerged from a preparation disrupted by Covid, but was ultimately debunked by Marco Verratti and Jorginho in an Italian midfield with superior movement and creativity.

Southgate thought he would address this by bringing Foden and Mount together. The experiment failed because instinctively they are both # 10 trying to operate in the same part of the pitch. Mount is an effective footballer, but he doesn’t have Foden’s invention, intuition, or reach. Southgate trusts its appetite for hard work. He’s the safer option, but he’s not going to break up a world-class entity, find the gaps, tease the room like Foden, whose potential is just greater.

In hindsight, Rice, Foden and Henderson may have offered Southgate the balance he is looking for, with the Liverpool captain providing some of the security Kalvin Phillips offers while licensing Foden to investigate more effectively.

With a home game against Albania and a final game against San Marino, England’s World Cup qualification is hardly in danger. Sterling and Kane have not been helped by the tensions at Manchester City and Spurs respectively, but they retain the confidence of Southgate and can expect to take the lead next month securing the four points that would guarantee passage into Qatar.

By Sam Cunningham, i’s chief correspondent for football

Part of the problem is that England are just not used to falling behind, be it due to the general quality of the opponents they face in qualifying or something else.

Before the semifinals of Euro 2020 against Denmark (which England won 2-1 after Mikkel Damsgaard’s early goal), they fell behind and lost in the Nations League against Belgium. Before that, they fell back in the same competition against Denmark and lost. At the last World Cup, despite reaching the semi-finals, they lost the first three goals they conceded – against Belgium in the group stage and the playoff for third place and Croatia in the last four.

On Tuesday night, the Hungarian goal fell out of the blue with a controversial penalty kick after Southgate players checked almost every 24 minutes beforehand.

But with the sour atmosphere, England’s players reacted well again. Thirteen minutes later, they were equal: Phil Foden bubbled with a free kick that hit a Hungarian arm and steered it into the path of John Stones from close range.

And Hungary is not a pushover. If anyone believed they were watching England’s 4-0 cruise in Budapest, they were wrong. In the EM 2020 “Group of Death” they pushed France and Germany against each other and almost caused a stir.

They came against England in the second half and tested them defensively. And while England didn’t win, they didn’t lose either, taking a point that brings them closer to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar – where an experience like this could come in handy.

Read Sam’s full analysis of the England versus Hungary game here

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