The FA showed faith in Gareth Southgate with a new deal after an impressive World Cup, but England fans have a reason to be a tad miffed after Friday night’s events.
When the Three Lions’ starting line-up was released roughly an hour before kick-off, an audible sigh from the expectant England fans back home could probably be heard as far away as Rijeka – and that’s not just because the atmosphere was comparable to that of a ghost town or, say, an average MK Dons home game.
A glance down the teamsheet revealed that Gareth Southgate had in many ways reverted to type, opting to pick his favoured midfield option in Jordan Henderson, but also the divisive figure of Eric Dier.
As much as it feels like it, the UEFA Nations League is not by any stretch uncompetitive football. There is qualification to achieve, points to play for and – for perhaps the first time in England history – relegation to avoid.
One could be forgiven though for getting irritable about Southgate’s questionable midfield selection. After all, some of the only stipulated excitement ahead of the game would be about how such a youthful England squad would cope post World Cup.
As an aside note, any suggestion that an England win in this game would constitute even a slither of revenge for what happened in Moscow is utterly absurd and should be treated as such.
Back to the midfield match-up though, and it is also perhaps understandable that Southgate was struck by fear when looking at Croatia’s options in the centre of the park. Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Ivan Rakitic actually make it quite difficult to name a better midfield trio currently out there in world football.
Both Spurs anchorman Eric Dier and Liverpool’s ever-reliable Jordan Henderson were clearly stuck in the team to stop the creativity of their opponents; especially Luka Modric, who ran rings around a tiring Three Lions side after half-time in the semi-final in Russia.
And that’s the point of this: Southgate went to his midfield comfort blanket a game too late. There’s no point living in the past and trying to right old wrongs, it’s time to open the doors to the number of young bucks currently clamouring on the other side to knock it down.
Dier and Henderson are simply put far too negative. They struggle to do much other than pass sideways or backwards. Getting further forward than the halfway line for anything other than a set piece probably gives them a vertigo-induced nosebleed. There is no pace to the build-up play with those two in the side; no urgency, incision or energy.
Also, if Southgate is so insistent on playing out from the back, it would surely help to have a midfield pair or trio who are comfortable in possession and agile enough to spin out of trouble.
So who could do a better job? I’m glad you asked.
Ok, so perhaps calls to thrust Jonjo Shelvey into the mix are a bit far-fetched, but there are plenty of options who could help England form a formidable midfield three for tournaments to come.
Harry Winks at 22 could develop into exactly the kind of player England fans wanted Henderson to. Comparisons with Iniesta are no joke – he could become an excellent lynchpin.
James Maddison got a big money move to the Premier League after the best season of his young career, has so far adjusted to that level and will no doubt be the most confident he has ever felt as a footballer. Add to that his skill set offers creativity, will drive the team forward and provides good set pieces to boot.
Phil Foden – although only 18 years of age – is already being tipped to be the next big thing both for club and country. It’s easy to throw caution to the wind when it comes to young players who have generated such hype, but when Pep Guardiola gets uncontrollably excited about someone so young, Southgate should too.
Mason Mount can be thrown into the mix too. Again, only a teenager, but he’s already cracked the squad and Southgate has admitted he is “not just along for the ride”. On this evidence, it seems he was brought along for the plane ride only.
Lewis Cook deserves a mention too, not least because he helped captain England’s U21 side to a Toulon Tournament win earlier in the year. Dynamic, commanding and intelligent – but now 21 and lacking experience in the senior side. Time for that to change.
Even Ross Barkley and Danny Drinkwater have a case for getting regular minutes. Although not as young as the aforementioned quintet, they do at least offer a sense of urgency.
“I suppose Dier and Henderson have become the Gerrard and Lampard of their generation.” pic.twitter.com/Hv82PfW4cx
— Sport Witness (@Sport_Witness) October 12, 2018
Jadon Sancho came on in the closing stages, in the process becoming the youngest ever player Southgate has fielded for England. The faith is there.
A new contract in the bag (that will see him all being well take charge at Qatar 2022) and a gesture of support from the FA hierarchy. There was no better time or moment for Southgate to continue his philosophy of building for the future and taking calculated risks.
Funnily enough, Henderson and Dier did almost combine for England’s opener just before half time – the latter sending a glancing header onto the far post after meeting the Liverpool man’s delivery at the near.
That’s about as far as the praise can go though. Brave call-ups Gareth, fair play for that, but it’s time to look to the future properly and show more faith in the youth and in the areas that need addressing, just as you have already shown willingness to do.
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