Southgate ready to address problem area for Croatia rematch

Expect an intriguing tactical battle in midfield

James Nalton

England meet Croatia in the UEFA Nations League on Friday night in a repeat of the World Cup semi-final between the two sides last summer. The fixture gives Gareth Southgate and his side the opportunity to work on the areas of their game which eventually fell down in Russia, and saw Croatia triumph after extra time.

The England manager has continued to put his faith in youth, perhaps because he knows many of them from his time as the U21 boss, but also because some of the more experienced players don’t fit his style, or simply aren’t good enough.

Our friends at Football Whispers look at one key area of the squad which has an effect on both the attack and defence, as England look to get revenge on the side which knocked them out of the tournament last summer.

The Nations League is a different type of theatre to the more serious business of the World Cup, but these aren’t merely friendlies either. Much to the annoyance of club managers across Europe, players face more competitive internationals as opposed to friendlies, which are essentially meaningless.

This is great for international football as a spectacle, but not so great for clubs who are looking to manage their players’ fitness across an already hectic fixture list. Their players are now asked to perform at full pelt in more games per season than ever before.

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Where this tournament could come in handy, though, is as an intense testing ground for newcomers to the international scene. Rather than taking it easy, perhaps coming off the bench in a game against a far inferior side, debutants or newer players are now thrust into the team at a high level against top players and sides of similar quality.

This could be a blessing in disguise for England who, despite their progress in Russia, were obviously lacking in certain areas, and this was most evident in their semi-final defeat to Croatia.

Against the likes of Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic, and Ivan Rakitic England’s midfield wilted after a promising start. They lacked control once ahead and the creativity in attack to put the game to bed while on top. The traits were evident in Croatia’s midfield, but not in England’s, and it appears Southgate has realised that this is a problem area.

He has turned to a number of players outside the Premier League’s top sides, and even to the Championship in the shape of Derby’s Mason Mount (on loan from Chelsea), though he overlooked 20-year-old Harvey Barnes who has also put forward a good case for inclusion with his performances for West Bromwich Albion.

The Championship is itself one of the most interesting leagues in Europe, and it would be refreshing to see the England manager turn to the second tier more regularly, especially when there are glaring holes in certain areas of the squad if only Premier League players are taken into account.

Ross Barkley and Harry Winks have also been included in the latest group, with the former benefitting from the tactical tuition of Maurizio Sarri and the latter offering a steady if not outstanding presence in a possession-based midfield.

James Maddison’s excellent form in the Championship for Norwich last season has continued into the Premier League with his new club, Leicester. He could offer the much-needed creativity in the attacking third and along with Barkley’s more mercurial attacking talents will provide an alternative to Dele Alli, who struggled at times in Russia.

Nathaniel Chalobah could even have been a surprise pick for Southgate for the World Cup, had he not spent much of the season out with a knee injury, and now finally gets a chance to make his debut. The Watford man has only started games in the League Cup so far this season, but could be seen as a more inventive and progressive presence deep in England’s midfield, and also possesses some handy defensive attributes.

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Southgate isn’t handing out caps for the sake of it. He’s looking to use all the resources at his disposal in order to solve a problem in his side and build on a World Cup which was impressive regardless of the problems which eventually reared their heads, and the so-called easy run to the semi-finals.

A more commanding, comfortable and balanced midfield may also encourage Southgate to try alternative formations to the back three he stuck with throughout the World Cup, even though there was a case for it to be changed for that semi-final, even if during the game.

Above all, it’s refreshing to see an England manager looking outside the box for solutions rather than sticking with favourites who are no longer taking the team forward. Luckily for Southgate there are few if any of the latter around this current set-up, and even if England are defeated by Croatia for the second time, it will at least be another learning curve for the manager and his young team.

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