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Gareth Southgate’s options to get best out of Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden

Jude Bellingham celebrates his goal against Serbia with Phil Foden in the background

England is in the midst of a rush to the centre ground, with so many of Gareth Southgate’s squad in a battle to occupy No 10. Traditionalists still believe it would be wiser to drag Phil Foden towards the left, while Trent Alexander-Arnold is thought by most fans and pundits to be more comfortable on the right. The only consensus according to all opinion polls is Jude Bellingham holds the key.

So how can England coach Southgate unite the different factions for the greater good of the nation? Telegraph Sport looks at his tactical options ahead of the Euro 2014 group game against Denmark on Thursday night.

OPTION ONE: Change nothing

The sample size upon which a few thousand words of forensic analysis have been dedicated to England’s new-look midfield is so minuscule, it serves to underline what a thankless job being a national coach is. Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland have worked out a formula to enable Foden and Bellingham to circulate in the central areas where they inflict most damage on opponents – as shown by England’s first goal of the tournament.

For 45 minutes against Serbia it worked. Foden, Bellingham and Trent Alexander-Arnold interconnected, closing gaps across the centre of the pitch, and retaining possession with precise, well-paced passes, dragging the Serbian defence into uncomfortable areas. With Declan Rice in supreme form as the deepest midfielder, the balance looked good. The dominance did not last into the second half, but the theory this is because of Foden and Bellingham’s positioning is half-baked.

The main worry in the latter stages against the Serbs was England’s fatigue. Ditching the master plan after one game would smack of weakness and suggest Southgate is too preoccupied with populist propaganda. The system needs to evolve – most notably by ordering Harry Kane to make more runs beyond the shoulders of defenders, as Bukayo Saka does – but England’s so-called midfield ‘problem’ has been greatly exaggerated. It is their strongest area.

OPTION TWO: Drop Foden

If Harry Kane is going to persist in dropping to the No 10 position because he is frustrated when not getting a touch of the ball, clearly there is a tactical problem against deep defences. The congestion 40 yards from goal as Foden, Bellingham, Alexander-Arnold and Kane exchange passes will leave Saka as the only one making forward runs to occupy defenders and benefit from Alexander-Arnold’s ability to find a killer pass. That reduces the Liverpool’s man’s effectiveness. In that situation, it makes more sense to select an out-and-out left winger such as Anthony Gordon to replicate Saka’s role on the right.

Asking Foden to play more as a left midfielder will not make much difference as he always drifts inside anyway rather than sprinting beyond full-backs. That means if Southgate has doubts about the system already – which is doubtful – and wants a left midfielder getting chalk on his boots, he will probably have to sacrifice Foden. But Southgate will be thinking longer-term. To win the tournament, England must beat one of the more technically proficient teams like Spain, Portugal and Germany, where previous wounding experiences proved the ability to retain possession is pivotal to controlling the game.

Trent Alexander-Arnold of England plays the ball
England need to find a way to get the best out of Trent Alexander-Arnold's passing ability - Getty Images/Ralf Ibing

In those games, England outnumbering teams in the middle can be a supreme advantage – especially with players so comfortable on the ball – and Gordon’s pace will be a more potent weapon between 70-90 minutes when the games open up against tiring defences.

‌OPTION THREE: Play Rice as the only holding midfielder

When England were at their best on Sunday, Rice was effectively this already as the Serbs were pinned back and Alexander-Arnold was too advanced to be described as a second No 6. Nevertheless, there are many who will argue that if Southgate likes this set-up so much it is more logical to select an out-and-out midfielder rather than someone learning on the job, especially at international level.

If Rice is the only holding midfielder, Bellingham and Foden can continue to play as interchanging No 10s and a space is freed for another attacker, with either Anthony Gordon on the left, or one of the Chelsea offensive midfield duo of Cole Palmer or Conor Gallagher. Picking Gordon ahead of Alexander-Arnold is illogical because the Newcastle man would be beneficiary of the playmaker’s service. If one of Chelsea players replaces Alexander-Arnold, Kane will still need to play further up the pitch to stop getting in the way of the creative midfielders.

Also, any clamour for Palmer and Gallagher to be picked over Alexander-Arnold is contradictory since the main concerns about the Liverpool man focus on his defensive capacities. Leaving sole responsibility to Rice to protect the back four will make England more vulnerable against the strongest nations. So with this option, the midfield looks more imbalanced.

OPTION FOUR: Play Kane as out-and-out No 9

Harry Kane gestures with his hand
Harry Kane had a frustrating night against Serbia - Getty Images/Ralf Ibing

As Jamie Carragher pointed out in his post-Serbia Telegraph column, the main tactical concern for England on Sunday night was not the balance of the midfield, but how it impacted on Harry Kane. If Kane plays as a traditional No 9 it gives the creative players multiple passing options and the balance is better. Foden can indulge on his mazy dribbles and through balls, Bellingham can find the spaces between centre-backs as they are occupied by an out-and-out striker, and Alexander-Arnold has a six yard box target for his pinpoint deliveries.

When Kane keeps dropping deep, the midfielders look up and see nothing. That is the opposite of what Foden is confronted with when taking possession for City, or Alexander-Arnold when adopting the hybrid role for Liverpool and seeing Mohamed Salah, Luis Diaz and Darwin Nunez dashing beyond defenders. If Kane is disciplined in his task as a target man, Foden and Bellingham can operate ‘between the lines’. The tactical dilemma then is whether Kane is being compromised too much to accommodate all the midfielders.

It is a work in progress and too early for definitive conclusions. With England virtually guaranteed qualification into the knockout phase, the Denmark and Slovenia fixtures are a chance to cast further judgments and iron out the flaws.