England look terrified and they have no functioning midfield | Barney Ronay

Estimated read time 5 min read

In the search for positives from an afternoon of ghost football in Frankfurt, you did at least have to give England one thing. This team has so far shown complete electoral neutrality in Germany. England are both laboured and conservative. Is there time to fix it?

Two things about this England team leap out at this stage. Frankly, they look like atomised, shot, terrified. And second, the most obvious problem England have had is a complete lack of centre ground. This is a tournament semi-favourite without a functioning midfield. It is something Gareth Southgate took into this tournament, tinkered with, worried away at, and which he has not been able to fix.

It was evident in Frankfurt from the opening moments. And it was from here that the sense of doubt has spread.

At times early on at the Frankfurt Arena, England’s players seemed to be sinking into the ground, literally bogged down in the turf. It was in its own way oddly authentic, a return to something fond and half-forgotten, like a family Christmas, to see an England team produce a tournament display shot through with such anti-energy, limb-weariness, heaviness of spirit, even while hoovering up a point that nudges them closer to qualification for the last 16.

There is a German word for the dark energy of this England team over 90 minutes against a worthy Denmark team. Weltschmerz, weariness of spirit. Energy has leached from this entity. Outside of Jude Bellingham’s 45-minute game within a game in Gelsenkirchen last Sunday, a bolt-on tube of nitrous oxide, England have played like a team with a migraine.

Is this structural, or just a matter of time passing? We are now in the late Southgate era, with a sense of something becoming slightly over-ripe, ready for final things and divvying up. The battle is against entropy. In Frankfurt, England looked all played out.

Gareth Southgate puts his arm round Trent Alexander-Arnold as he comes off the pitchView image in fullscreen

First, the fear. Where does it come from? Gravity, renewed expectation, eight years of the same voice? Things fall apart. Southgate talked a lot about eradicating the toxic noise, the weight of expectation, which was his trick when he first came into the job. Does that work? Talking a lot about it. He had special meetings to say, hey, don’t feel any pressure.

Does that work? Does this feel a bit like the moment in Groundhog Day where Bill Murray self-consciously tries to recreate his perfect day, hurriedly throwing snowballs, ticking off a happy laugh. Well, it worked then.

Indeed at times here England looked like their pre-Gareth iteration. This was a shout back to Iceland in Nice eight years ago. An ill-fitting star player in the centre. An opponent that feels your weakness. The sense the ball is suddenly square, a ticking bomb. You half expected to look up and see Harry Kane taking corners.

And the fear was there from the start. In the opening seconds Denmark cut through the left side of England’s midfield with no sense of resistance, no gristle, nothing there. Declan Rice almost booted the ball out of play. Phil Foden tried. He wanted the ball. He moved more centrally. It didn’t last.

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Midfield is the key to a tournament team. And England’s is a huge problem. The feeling in Germany is of spaces opening up. Has Southgate ever really understood, or really loved his England midfield, made it an object of special care? It helps if you have great midfielders, something his England never have.

It was Trent Alexander-Arnold, who started again in the key position next to Declan Rice. He played without any intensity here. There was no sense of chemistry, of either part of the central pivot enjoying this shape. Deep midfield is such a hard role to master. The angles are endless, the demands of timing, space, of always being on, always seeing every possibility around you.

Was it ever likely to work, simply slotting a very talented passer into that role, without a run of games or time to groove it? Conor Gallagher replaced him on 54 minutes and was eager and effective, playing as ever like he’s just been stung by a wasp. Perhaps both will be blamed for England’s poor showing. But this was Southgate’s gambit. It has failed here so far.

Consider also Declan Rice. Has he ever played as badly in the last three years as he did here? He looked lost, given too much space to cover, unsure of what the patterns were. This is Southgate’s midfield, one he saw coming, which he knew had to be built from off-cuts and parts.

Declan Rice had a difficult game, passing the ball out straight for a Danish corner at one point in the second half.View image in fullscreen

The midfield is a defensive problem first of all. Denmark’s goal after Harry Kane had opened the scoring came right through the rump of this England team. Midfield is also an attacking problem. England used six attacking players in this game.

They had La Liga’s top midfield scorer, the Bundesliga top scorer and the Premier League player of the season. They looked utterly confused over what an attack should even look like, what angles to make, how to build pressure.

Radical action is needed here. The fear has spread from that absence, from the centre, from the lack of control, the spaces in between. It will require a feat of management to build a midfield on the hoof; something that really should have been done before now.

Source: theguardian.com

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