“I enjoyed paying tribute to bygone eras this week”, tweets esteemed football writer Michael Cox, “with players misbehaving (mid 90s), the left sided problem (98-04), a central midfield duo that doesn’t work (2004-08) and not enough creativity (1872-2020)”
However hyperbolic his last statement was, it is symptomatic of the feeling of lethargy arising after England’s latest Nations League clashes with Iceland and Denmark. If the wave of England’s new golden generation was just cresting at the 2018 World Cup, this period feels undeniably like the angry swell left behind.
In a week that saw some of the Nations brightest talents dim in the eyes of public affection and the squad as a whole scoring 1 goal (a penalty) against sides ranked 39th and 16th respectively, it is fair to say the general reaction was that of frustration.
I have previously written on the fragility of a player’s time at the top and it seems the same can be said of Gareth Southgate. Football Twitter were calling for his head, a bizarre demand less than 12 months from a major tournament, but his tactics were clearly questionable at the very least. (Epitomised hilariously by Jack Grealish’s bemused look after being subbed on against Denmark.)
Southgate may carry his tactics notebook in his famous waistcoat, a feature notably missing in the latest fixtures!
Midfield creativity and dynamism were severely lacking in both fixtures, those appearing to be crying out for Jack Grealish – a player famed for his ability to unlock defences in a low block. Grealish had created 91 chances in 19/20 second only to PFA Player of the Year winner Kevin De Bruyne. Yet he was only trusted with 14 minutes from a possible 180.
(Incidentally in this time period he still created more chances than any other player on the field vs Denmark!)
It’s clear Southgate has larger pieces being moved in the chess game that is international management however there is a feeling that such decisions are harder to get behind when fans are unable to distinguish any clear strategy being implemented. Nothing evidenced this further than the selection of Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice together.
The traditional number 4, or half back, based on the late Herbert Chapman’s W-M formation, is originally the midfield fulcrum previously used to progress the ball further upfield and link play to the Inside and Outside Right/Left and the Centre Forward. Back when 2-3-5 formation was footballing concrete and to defer from this was sacrilege of the highest order, the number 4’s role was crucial. Over the years the centre half’s role was pushed deeper with defence taking precedent: birthing the modern box-to-box midfielder but in contemporary football, the centre-half is now colloquially referred to as the central defender.
Today the number 4 is more commonly associated with a holding midfielder role, someone who ‘sits’ in front of the defence breaking up play and distributing the ball either forward or wide wherever space presents itself.
Holding midfielders and deep-lying playmakers are closely related with the latter focusing more on displaying an adept passing range. The term ‘Regista’ refers to a deep-lying playmaker positioned in the traditional No.4 (centre-half) looking to create opportunities through long balls from deep. Regista is an Italian term with examples of traditional Registas being Manchester United’s Charlie Roberts (1904-1913) and more famously Andrea Pirlo and Xabi Alonso.
In England, the purest example of a Regista would be Michael Carrick. According to Tifo Football, Carrick never met the heights he was capable of as the English game does not allow the time needed to play this role appropriately.
But where does any of this relate to the current English side?
Well, while neither Phillips nor Rice are Registas they are both traditional holding midfielders able to slot into a back 3 in when attacking:
Against Denmark it was clear Southgate set England up in a 5-2-3 or 3-4-3 when in possession. Either formation lends itself well to the use of 1 defensive midfielder and 1 more creative minded midfielder. However, Southgate chose to play both Phillips and Rice stifling ball progression through the middle of the park.
This created large spaces between the midfield duo and attacking front 3 which could have been utilised by having a player there! However, the formation was so inherently defensive that Sterling and Sancho had to drop deep to try and collect the ball leaving Kane isolated and ineffective.
It is clear both Rice and Phillips are unable to play in conjunction with one another in a midfield 2. I would argue this is not due to any lack in personal ability but to a balancing failure in this England system.
I admire Southgate for trying to implement multiple systems ahead of Euro 2021, being tactically fluid is nothing if not a strength.
Against Iceland, England set up in a 4-3-3 meaning, proving both systems are perfected over the next 7 months, England’s tactical set up should be multifaceted.
Playing Rice and Phillips together is only 1 example of a tactical decision being ill fated and let’s not forget defensively they fulfilled their role perfectly. England kept a clean sheet and despite 1 or 2 moments early in the second half (Eriksen’s missed shot!) both Denmark’s bark and bite were somewhat meagre.
Despite most of the conversation following the Denmark game being focused on the shortcomings of the midfield, Phillips quietly had a debut to remember:
Data collaborated from @LUFCDATA on Twitter:
- 81% pass accuracy (48/59)
- 73 touches
- 10 final third passes
- 6 duels won
- 5 successful long passes
- 3 tackles won (most of any player)
- 3 recoveries
- 2 interceptions
Phillips averaged 1.33 interceptions and 1.75 tackles won for Leeds during 19/20 (source: fbref.com) meaning he has begun by replicating his extraordinary club form at National level.
Granted the sample size is small!
Phillips and the city of Leeds should be proud of his debut, a prime example of a local lad done good! Phillips’ attitude, skillset and knowledge of the game all contributed to Southgate’s selection and why he is held in such high esteem by Bielsa and his Leeds United peers. I don’t expect this will be the last we see of Kalvin Phillips wearing the 3 lions.
To summarise, playing 2 holding midfielders is perfectly acceptable and even admirable in certain situations. Namely a double-pivot when, crucially, there are other more attacking midfielders supplementing the lack of creativity. Based on the personnel selection and reaction to the Denmark game, it does not seem advisable to play 2 holding midfielders in front of a back 5 severing any ball progression and resulting in long raking balls being played upfield from the defenders.
This is, after all, not Tony Pulis’ England!