Gareth Southgate has solved two thirds of England's perennial midfield problem
England have come out of previous encounters with Italy confronting the same complaint: they simply cannot compete against a midfield with more game-management skills and nous.
From the quarter-final defeat at Euro 2012, albeit on penalties but when they were passed to a standstill by Andrea Pirlo, to the final of Euro 2020 when superiority was ceded to the carousel that Marco Verratti and Jorginho can create, it had been the same story.
In winning in Naples, the first time England have defeated the Azzurri in Italy since 1961, there were signs that this imbalance had finally shifted, especially in a first half when the energy and drive of Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham dominated the centre of the pitch.
After half-time, it was less convincing, although it was not unreasonable for manager Gareth Southgate to argue that, at last, England had shown the fight to see out the win, especially after going down to 10 men due to Luke Shaw’s dismissal, to take control of their Euro 2024 qualifying group.
“We had to show a lot of resilience and character and, coming away from home, you’re going to have spells where you’re going to have to do that, and one of the questions for all of us is ‘can we go away to the top teams and get that result?’ and we’ve shown that we can,” Southgate argued.
It may not have been the most intimidating Italian team England have faced, and they were nowhere near as strong as the line-ups in 2012 and 2020, but their strength lay in their vastly experienced midfield and they were managed, especially when Bellingham was able to pressure Jorginho high up the pitch.
For Italy, with Nicolo Barella completing their trio, it was the same midfield that started the Wembley final.
With Bellingham and Rice – two of the three youngest players in the line-up – Southgate undoubtedly has two of the components of a tournament-winning midfield, which has allowed him to persist with a more progressive 4-3-3.
The manager knows it must be the way ahead if England are going to finally win a tournament as they move away from the emergency setting of a 3-5-2 which was constructed to cover up the deficiencies in midfield.
“More evidence,” was Southgate’s verdict as to whether England were getting closer. He added: “There were a lot of periods where that was a very good team performance and a lot of moments when the midfield had to do the basics of winning second balls and then you’re on the attack. It was really important in the context of the game.”
Bellingham and Rice are likely to be on the move this summer. The queue to sign Bellingham, 19, for what would likely be a record fee for a British player is: Real Madrid, Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea.
Rice will probably finally leave West Ham United, most likely for Arsenal. “A top performance,” was Southgate’s verdict on the 24-year-old’s dynamic contribution against Italy, which was enhanced by a goal – and scoring more is undoubtedly a priority, especially if Rice is to fulfil his potential and be more dominant.
The third part of the midfield is where there is less certainty. Southgate would want Jordan Henderson in there but he will be 34 by the time of the Euros, while it is often forgotten that Kalvin Phillips was arguably England’s best player at the previous tournament.
Southgate clearly retains faith in Phillips and, while he made a shaky start against Italy, in which he twice easily lost possession, and was fatigued by the end, that is understandable given his lack of game time at Manchester City, where he is yet to start a Premier League game after his £42 million move last summer.
In fact, Phillips has now played 270 minutes for England this season and just 198 for City, which is frankly ridiculous and unsustainable if he wants to retain his place for his country. Unless things change, Phillips may have to seek a move away at the end of this campaign.
The options beyond the trio are limited, although it will be interesting to see what the future holds for Mason Mount, especially if he moves away from Chelsea and is used differently by his new club.
It will be getting that third component right that might make all the difference for England. It is a cliche to say games are won and lost in midfield, but it is also broadly true.
There is a world-class, special talent in Bellingham, so devastating from the halfway line to the opposition goal and it is Southgate’s task to create the right blend around him. It may well be Rice and Phillips, but the latter must resolve his club career.