This week, England qualified for the World Cup 2018 in Russia, finishing top of Qualifying Group F. The job is now done, but the sluggish manner of the performances was far more significant.
A nagging concern remains that England don’t have the midfield dynamism, creativity and guile to compete with the best teams in the world.
With narrow 1-0 wins over Slovenia and Lithuania, countries with respective FIFA rankings of 55 and 120, this international break was the most uninspiring for many years. That is quite some feat.
The lacklustre response to qualification from fans across the country comes not from complacency or arrogance, but from a genuine concern that the side hasn’t progressed since the last World Cup. Even Ian Wright, a giddy fan and perennial optimist, struggled to glean positives from two listless displays.
A key weakness is evident: the engine room. The role of protecting the backline and linking defence to attack is the greatest cause for concern.
Gareth Southgate’s preference for the Eric Dier-Jordan Henderson duo is full of industry but, at best, is one-dimensional and lethargic. Individually they offer a hard-working approach but lack the technical prowess to break teams down. They are perhaps too similar to harmonise as a decent midfield pairing.
Harry Winks was impressive against Lithuania last night, and regularly looked for forward passes rather than playing it safe. With a pass completion rate of 96 per cent, he offers real hope for the future.
Dream come true making my @England debut tonight! Delighted with the win too❤️
— Harry Winks (@HarryWinks) October 8, 2017
On social media, there was a large band of support for Jack Wilshere to solve the midfield issues. Now 25 and out of favour at Arsenal after a sporadic loan spell at Bournemouth, it looks increasingly like his time is up.
Dele Alli has previously played in a deeper, central position for both MK Dons and Tottenham. He would provide more guile and athleticism than many other candidates. This option may reduce his effectiveness alongside Harry Kane, but would still allow a Sterling-Rashford-Lallana attacking trio behind Kane as the lone striker.
Southgate has previously played Jake Livermore and Fabien Delph in central midfield capacities but neither player is a consistent starter for their club and, in Delph’s case, often used as a makeshift wing-back.
Chris Waddle recently said that Jonjo Shelvey is “the best I’ve seen at passing the ball at distance”. Shelvey offers a more maverick, forward-thinking approach, although he suffers from a lack of consistency as well as question marks over his temperament. He would at least offer more spark to the midfield. Any other genuine options are either injured or out-of-sorts.
— Kieran Trippier (@trippier2) October 8, 2017
It’s clear there is a real dearth of options in central midfield. The key challenge lies not only in choosing the right personnel with complementary attributes, but also in giving them the necessary time to dovetail into a harmonious partnership.
The inferiority paradox
As an extension of a lack of creativity, England often suffer the same fate as Tottenham have at Wembley this season. Inferior teams are content to soak up pressure and play on the counter-attack, meaning the build-up play often feels slow and disjointed.
The margins are finer in the Premier League and Tottenham haven’t been able to score late goals like the winner against Slovenia on Thursday night. It is no mere coincidence that Tottenham’s only victory at Wembley this season came against a Borussia Dortmund side who clocked up 68 per cent possession.
Next month, England play Germany and Brazil in friendly matches at Wembley. In a similar fashion to Dortmund, both teams will head to London with more technically-gifted players looking to dominate possession. Cue an impressive, gritty performance from England as they revel in a more counter-attacking style. And so the hope begins again.
Bridging the gap
In the post-match interview on Sunday, Kane inadvertently let slip his frustrations at such slow build-up play, as he became stranded for large portions of the match, “It was a difficult surface, but we have to do better.” Southgate also bemoaned a “lack of quality in the final third”.
Kane’s 13 goals in September equalled the highest tallies in a single month by both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Few would argue that, in current form, he is the best ‘number nine’-type striker in world football.
— Harry Kane (@HKane) October 8, 2017
Similarly, Marcus Rashford often dazzles in an England shirt and has matured under Jose Mourinho’s tutelage. Across Manchester, Pep Guardiola is a huge fan of Raheem Sterling in the role behind the striker. Behind these front-runners, there is an array of decent competition for attacking positions.
England are not short of exciting talent going forwards, but at present it is not harnessed sufficiently. Dynamism and attacking flair is irrelevant without the right foundation in place to support it.