Gareth Southgate had little choice but to adopt a counter-attacking style for the 2018 World Cup. England just didn’t have the players to control a game against the strongest opponents and this was exposed in the semi-final defeat to Croatia when the Three Lions had their roar muffled by the masterful Luka Modric. A lot has changed since then. While England still lack a creative force of Modric’s calibre, Southgate is now awash with options in that position. The Covid-19 pandemic has fractured their preparations for Euro 2020, and so some integration is still required, but England and their midfielders should have no problem in controlling a major tournament match.
After years of hype, Phil Foden has finally flourished into a key figure for Manchester City this season with the 20-year-old stepping into the void left by David Silva at the Etihad Stadium. With nine goals in 25 appearances, Foden is City’s top scorer for the 2020/21 campaign and is only getting better with every game he plays.
Jack Grealish is seen primarily as a winger by Southgate, but he too is capable of controlling and creating through the midfield. The 25-year-old has been so impressive for Aston Villa this season he might well be an early candidate for Player of the Year along with the likes of Bruno Fernandes, Ruben Dias and Harry Kane. That’s the level Grealish is operating at.
The last few weeks has seen James Maddison lift his game, scoring in each of his last four games for Leicester City. The 24-year-old is one of the midfielders who would give England significant goal threat in a roaming number 10 role behind the central striker and has the intelligence to quickly adapt to whatever system Southgate has devised for Euro 2020.
Mason Mount might not be considered as naturally talented as Foden, Grealish or even Maddison, but he has been a rare success story in a difficult season for Chelsea. Indeed, the 22-year-old was one of Frank Lampard’s first names on the team sheet, to the point of derision, but Mount more often than not justified his selection.
All four of these players are slightly different from the other. As referenced, Grealish is more of a wide man even though he can operate centrally. Foden is a conductor, even if he has an eye for goal, while Maddison might consider himself a finisher having recently spoken about his desire to lift his final third numbers.
Mount is most comfortable in something close to a number eight role in the centre of the pitch. It’s possible that he could play in the same team as Foden, Grealish or Maddison, but the Chelsea midfielder’s recent form only adds to the selection headache Southgate is surely feeling ahead of the summer.
England must back themselves in games against the biggest and best countries at the European Championships. There is no need for the Three Lions to feel inferior such is the depth of their options right now. In almost every position, Southgate’s options will be greater during Euro 2020 than they were three years ago at the World Cup and this is best reflected in the way the midfielders, once a weakness for England, have become a strength.
In Russia in 2018, Southgate’s hand was forced. England had to play the way they did because of the limitations of their talent pool. Now, that talent pool is much deeper. If Southgate once again adopts a counter-attacking style, it won’t be because he lacks the players to be more proactive. Instead, that will be on him. Southgate mustn’t waste the midfield talent he now has.