England face another tough test in the Nations League on Friday, one that will evoke memories of the Three Lions’ heart-breaking exit from the World Cup in Russia, as Gareth Southgate’s side travel to Croatia for the chance to claim revenge over their semi-final nemeses.
On that day, the midfield proved to be England’s weak spot – despite its idiosyncratic setup inspiring some exciting, attacking performances in the earlier stages, the engine room was completely overawed by Croatia’s batch of top-class playmakers, who put the ball on the deck to control the match.
But the situation’s a little different this time around, with the two players who otherwise impressed in the pair of roaming No.8 slots in front of Jordan Henderson but struggled to make the same impact against Croatia, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard, absent through injury.
That’s seen a significant overhaul of Southgate’s midfield options and chances presented to a raft of young players, but only three of those – Leicester City’s James Maddison, Derby’s Mason Mount and Chelsea’s Ross Barkley – are out-and-out No.8s. The rest, like Harry Winks and Nathaniel Chalobah, seem better suited to the anchoring midfield role, where they can orchestrate and enforce respectively from deep.
The squad selection begs suspicions of Southgate modifying the structure of his midfield, perhaps making it a more conventional 3-5-2 with one attacking midfielder in between the front-line and two holding players.
But that feels like a step back for this England team; as much as the formula that worked so well at the World Cup shouldn’t be stuck with to the point of becoming dogma, it was also exactly what made the Three Lions seem such a modern, mobile and exciting team in Russia.
In fact, the three clubs at the top of the Premier League table this season – Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool – all employ midfields with two roaming No.8s that burst forward to join the attack.
There’s a subtle difference in style too, that could make England’s setup a lot more effective against Croatia this time around. Barkley has always been at his best when driving towards the opposition with the ball at feet, and that aspect of his game is probably a shade above what Alli and Lingard offer in terms of counter-attacking dribbles.
Likewise, while Maddison is by no means a playmaker of Luka Modric or Ivan Rakitic’s calibre, he does have a defence-splitting pass in his locker, averaging just shy of two created chances per match in the Premier League this season and already grabbing two assists. That’s probably what England lacked most in the World Cup – someone who could play an incisive ball beyond the opposition backline.
So, England fans, with Mount seemingly an option from the bench rather than for the starting XI, who would you start against Croatia on Friday night? Let us know by voting below…