There’s a gap in this England team, a point at which the gaps don’t join up. In keeping with almost every elite side in the world, Gareth Southgate’s side are committed to playing the ball out of defence. With the aim of drawing an opposition’s press up the field and freeing space in midfield, it’s entirely logical; Southgate has an array of direct, dynamic attacking players and the more often they’re isolated against single defenders the better.
As sound as those principles are though, they’re missing a step: the base of England’s midfield remains an ideological contradiction.
For any side looking to play their way up the field from the back, the broad requirements for the player operating in front of the defence are the same. That midfielder obviously has to be capable on the ball, must see the breadth of the field and has to possess the convinction in his passing to advance the play. He is not just a simple recycler, because each of his touches must have an impact – even if it’s just to create space and time for a teammate to begin a move.
Those imperatives are well-established, but perhaps one overlooked fundamental is the capacity to receive the ball well. Because high-pressing is common in the modern game, the player who collects the ball from the defence will nearly always be put under immediate pressure – or, at the least, have his central passing routes blocked off by teams trying to funnel moves into the channels. As a result, the demand is for a technical footballer.
And yet Southgate has rarely used one. Most often, Eric Dier or Jordan Henderson has occupied that position and England have been left with a functional connecting piece between their defence and midfield, rather than a proper bridge. That isn’t to say that Dier and Henderson aren’t valuable players, just that in that position and with those supporting beliefs their shortcomings are inevitable exposed. While both may offer defensive protection, neither could be described as cultured and, consequently, neither look particularly comfortable under pressure.
This evening, Harry Winks is expected to start for England in Seville. Henderson’s yellow card in Croatia has forced Southgate’s hand and, now fit and available again, Winks is his obvious replacement. Obvious, but different. The Tottenham player is being defaulted in by his place in the squad hierarchy, but his inclusion represents a movement towards a more logical solution. England are not just a single change away from ideological perfection – clearly not – but the sharper tone Winks is capable of bringing to their midfield should allow them to be far more credible.
Previously, this intention to play possession football has been very noble, but it hasn’t always endured when it matters. As the Croatian players took great delight in pointing out, during the semi-final in Russia the neat phases they encountered during the first-half dissolved before half-time arrived and, by the end of 90 minutes, England were regularly surrendering the ball with direct, often aimless passes. Partly that was the pressure of the occasion, but it was also symptomatic of this critical deficiency: if the right links between a team’s departments aren’t in place, eventually they will lose their way. The statistics from that game are telling: England played 103 long-balls to Croatia’s 85 and completed 126 fewer short passes. The deeper texture reveals more worrying trends: while Luka Modric had 86 touches of the ball, Marcelo Brozovic had 97, and Ivan Rakitic had 98, Jordan Henderson managed just 56 during his 96 minutes on the pitch.
Those statistics represented the flow of the game as a whole, but they also reveal which England players struggled to remain involved. Their known stylistic shortcomings also offer a diagnosis for why. Without someone capable of moving the ball from deep positions, the side’s confidence in its ability to move methodically upfield evaporated. The longer the game went on, the more predictable England became.
So, Winks will get his chance. Spain’s rejuvenation under Luis Enrique makes the game with Spain a trial by fire, but – should it not go well – it’s a selection worth perservering with. For the longest time, England’s midfield has been a perpetual experiment without purpose; one player comes in, another gets dropped, so on and so forth. There’s never any resulting chemistry, nor evidence of something being built for a particular purpose. It’s one of the great failings of the national team and, in spite of the improvements overseen by Southgate, it remains a glaring flaw; the country remains wedded to the belief that a midfield should always be a compromise – between little and large, physical and skilful. The result, invariably, is muddled identity and diluted function.
Whether Winks is part of the cure to that remains to be seen. Stylistically, however, he represents a welcome departure. He is being picked for what he can do with the ball, not what he offers without it and that contrasts with England’s maddening deference to their opponents’ weaknesses over the decades. It was again in evidence in Russia and that explained the continued selection of Dier and Henderson.
They provided false comfort, though, because whatever they added in security they subtracted from the side’s general fluidity. Winks, by contrast, is an aggressive selection: he will pass the ball relentlessly forward, he will happily receive it in any situation, and will both broaden his side’s avenues of attack and diversify their defensive exits.
Within that, lies an objective: over the long term, the aum must be to construct a midfield which allows England to be something other than passive. While there is still a place in modern football for traditional ball-winners and the occasional compromise, the international game seems to be ruled by whichever side is best in possession. Spain had their imperial stage between 2008 and 2012, Germany won the World Cup in Brazil and, most recently of course, France finished top of the pile in Russia. None of those teams were reckless, they each had various protections built into their formations, but – crucially – the midfielders designated defensive duties (Sergio Busquets, Toni Kroos, N’Golo Kante) were all multi-faceted players. They each have their differences, but all of them were assets to their side when in possession.
It’s a scenario which England will have to replicate. For the sake of their general aims, but also because the merits of so many of their emerging players lie in the attacking side of the game. Without a midfield which can properly control a match and determine its rhythm and shape, players like Jadon Sancho, Mason Mount and James Maddison (maybe others, such as Ademola Lookman and Reiss Nelson) will spend their international careers as decoration rather than true influencers. What is the value of those players if what happens behind them isn’t pointed towards their success?
The hope, then, is that Winks takes this chance. This evening, he will carry his own international hopes into the Estadio Benito Villamarín, but he will also represent a departure from England’s typical interpretation of his position. It’s not essential that he remains in the side for the next decade, but it is important that he opens some eyes and lights a different path.
He is the canary going down the mine and, for the sake of England’s future, he must come back so that others can follow.