England’s midfield conundrum: who will Southgate turn to at Euro 2024?

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Cole Palmer;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Cole Palmer</a>, <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Conor Gallagher;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Conor Gallagher</a> and <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Trent Alexander-Arnold;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Trent Alexander-Arnold</a> are among Gareth Southgate’s midfield options.</span><span>Photograph: Richard Pelham/Getty Images</span>

The argument that Gareth Southgate’s refusal to lift the handbrake is the only thing blocking England’s path to glory refuses to go away. Yet before they face Serbia in Gelsenkirchen on Sunday, it is worth asking whether throwing caution to the wind really is the right way forward for a team fretting over a range of defensive concerns and unsure over who should partner Declan Rice in midfield.

Of course, there will be those saying that attack is the best form of defence, not least because few countries have as many talented forwards as England at Euro 2024. For Southgate, perhaps the main task is working out how to fit them all in behind Harry Kane. Phil Foden on the left, Jude Bellingham as the No 10 and Bukayo Saka on the right? It sounds great – but how about Southgate finds a spot for Cole Palmer and leaves Rice to look after all the dirty work in defensive midfield?

Related: Euro 2024 team guides part 10: England

We have been here before. Complaints around excessive caution stalk Southgate prior to, during and after every tournament. His position, however, has broadly been informed by the success of Portugal at Euro 2016 and France at the 2018 World Cup. They were pragmatic sides who hardly set the pulse racing. France, in particular, have tended to play in moments under Didier Deschamps. Southgate, who has spent eight years trying to find the key to success, is justified in seeing defensive stability as fundamental in international football given that coaches have less time in training to work on the kind of synchronised attacking moves that define the best club sides.

How many gung-ho tournament winners can you remember? A crucial factor in Argentina’s triumph at the 2022 World Cup was that others were willing to do Lionel Messi’s running. Italy, who beat England in the Euro 2020 final, played quick, engaging football but knew how to defend. A defensive streak even developed in Spain’s possession football after Euro 2008, making them so hard to hurt on the break. Vicente del Bosque, Spain’s coach, was criticised for packing the midfield at the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. They weren’t entertaining, but they had control and were unbeatable. Germany, meanwhile, have struggled to adjust to becoming less physical since winning the World Cup in 2014.

The sense is that power still matters as much as technical quality. Yet the danger for England is getting stuck between two approaches. It was interesting that they looked flimsier after picking a side heavy on technicians against Iceland last Friday. The counterpressing from Palmer and Foden lacked intensity, while the balance between Kobbie Mainoo and Rice was not right. Southgate had already noted that England were more open in midfield when Mainoo, a rare but raw talent who is still maturing, started in the 2-2 draw with Belgium in March.

That final midfield spot remains a worry. Circumstances have worked against Southgate. It is obvious that his preference would have been to deploy a double bolt of Rice and Kalvin Phillips in front of the back four. Yet selecting Phillips was impossible after the Manchester City midfielder’s disastrous loan at West Ham and Southgate’s problems have been exacerbated by Jordan Henderson’s decline since moving to Saudi Arabia.

A fit Henderson or an in-form Phillips would have started with Rice at this tournament. It is worth remembering that Southgate tried to open up in Qatar, only to drop Mason Mount in midfield after a nervy draw with the USA. Henderson came in and had a big role in England’s largely successful plan to negate Kylian Mbappé in their unfortunate quarter-final defeat to France.

Now, though, there is uncertainty over the midfield’s setup. Rice is an outstanding anchor, but it would be a risk to leave him to shield a defence missing Harry Maguire and still waiting for Luke Shaw, the squad’s only left-back, to recover from a hamstring injury. Some variation of 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 is far likelier than the fantasy 4-1-4-1. Rice has to have a partner and even then there are questions over his role. Some see the Arsenal midfielder as more No 8 than No 6 because of his ability to drive with the ball, but Southgate disagrees.

“My role is completely different here,” Rice said last week. “At Arsenal I’m quite lucky because we’ve got two other No 6s, which allows me to play one up. Here at the minute I’m pretty much the only out-and-out 6. Tournament football is more about the team. I want to be disciplined. Gareth and Steve [Holland] like me in front of the back four.”

England need that steel. They conceded two goals in seven games when they reached the final at Euro 2020 and kept three clean sheets in five games at the last World Cup. At the same time, though, the common failing with England in the biggest games is their inability to keep possession in midfield.

Southgate talks a lot about lacking a Luka Modric or a Toni Kroos, that deep-lying link player. His resources in midfield are far from vast. Conor Gallagher is energetic and selfless. Mainoo is 19 and although he has looked supremely confident on the ball in training this week, there are questions over his defensive work. Adam Wharton is a fabulous passer but made his debut only last week. Trent Alexander-Arnold, who is in line to partner Rice against Serbia, is still proving himself in the position. His long-distance passing is unrivalled, but can he set the tempo and is he disciplined enough?


“I think he’ll go with Trent,” Wayne Rooney said on The Overlap podcast this week. “I think he’s probably the most gifted player with the ball we’ve got. Defensively, he’s all over the place. He can’t defend. I wouldn’t have him anywhere near the middle of the pitch.”

It is up to Alexander-Arnold to prove Rooney wrong. The worry, though, is that England are slightly less physical, a bit easier to play through and likelier to concede. It feels a little anti-Gareth, almost as if England have suddenly veered away from the ballast that has carried them far at the past three tournaments. It would not be a surprise if Gallagher, the less fashionable option, comes in and pesters the opposition with his pressing in a knockout game.

Even then, though, the answer is not to sit back and rely on all-out defence. Timidity with a 1-0 lead was England’s biggest issue against Croatia in 2018 and Italy in 2021. They have the attackers to scare anyone. The challenge is making sure Kane, Bellingham, Saka and Foden don’t have to do too much.