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The Solve-All Solution That Likely Won’t Solve It All

Since England’s first uninspiring outing in Gelsenkirchen, fans have been crying out for one particular tactical switch but is it as foolproof as social media has suggested?

England have been awful in Germany, even as a fiercely defensive Gareth Southgate apologist, I have had to raise my hands and admit that the performances have been desperate.

The inevitable aftermath of such abhorrent displays is the emergence of the couch Contes and the armchair Ancelottis, all spouting their fail-safe switches to solve England’s problems.

It would be a criminal lack of self-awareness not to include myself in that group and this article itself is a shameless admission to that fact.

For all the tactical adjustments that have been proposed, one has come up more than any other: play Phil Foden in central attacking midfield and drop Jude Bellingham alongside Declan Rice at the base of England’s triangle.

The clamour for this switch has grown to full-blown furore, an incessant, inescapable din ringing out from our phones every time we swipe them open. "It's so obvious," "It's so blatant," "Why can everyone see it but Southgate."

A deeper dive into this idea though, suggests there is a reason a man that has worked with these players for the weeks leading up to this tournament, the months across the qualifiers and the years of their development, is yet to acknowledge it. Here are some of the reasons I, and perhaps Southgate himself, believe that this tactical elixir may not cure England’s attacking ailments.

Square Pegs, Round Holes

One of the main criticisms of Southgate thus far has been his deployment of players in unfamiliar positions. We have seen the idiomatic slight “square pegs in round holes,” plenty of times in post-match TV coverage and on social media.

Therefore, it seems strange to me that England fans are calling for an exacerbation of that with the shuffling of Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham.

Phil Foden is only very occasionally deployed centrally for Manchester City. Pep Guardiola, considered by many the greatest manager of his generation, believes him to be at his best out wide.

In City's indomitable system, Foden acts as an injection of energy, unpredictability and creativity. Someone to pick the lock and kick down the door. However, he is rarely trusted by Guardiola with the responsibility of keeping the Citizens ticking over in the middle of the park.

There was a time when central attacking midfielders were treasured for their mercurial nature. In the blink of an eye, they sparked a game into life and got bums off seats with their imaginative style.

The modern number ten is a vastly different proposition. In the world of possession-dominated, pre-programmed football, it is tactical awareness and intelligence that are prized in this role. More often than not, a ten now sits around the edge of the penalty area, recycling possession and keeping waves of attack rolling. Their job is systematic, retaining the ball and shifting it left to right, crashing the box or picking the killer pass only when the time is absolutely right.

It appears Guardiola deems Phil Foden too chaotic to play behind the striker and perhaps, in the cagey world of tournament football, Southgate feels the same. Don’t get me wrong, a bit of chaos is exactly what this England forward line needs, but it must be in the right areas. Just about the only thing England have had in their three troubling outings in Germany is control and I fear moving Foden centrally would risk ceding that ahead of the knockouts.

Then, there is Jude Bellingham. He has spent a season with Real Madrid playing as a free-roaming, attacking midfielder or as a false nine. Now Three Lions fans are insisting he is moved deeper.

I want to preface the following by stating that not only am I aware of Jude Bellingham’s ability to play deeper, I also advocated for it in the lead-up to the tournament. Many a weekend afternoon was spent in 2022 watching him drive from deep in a Dortmund shirt and I envisaged the same for England but in this system? At this stage? It may cause more problems than it solves. 

Even in his deeper days at Borussia Dortmund, Jude Bellingham was not at the base of his side’s midfield (as he would be if he were shoehorned next to Rice.) He was one of two eights with the presence of Emre Can serving as a protective buffer behind him. No such protection exists in this England team but more on that later. 

After Dortmund came a magical last season unlocking his attacking potential under the tutelage of Carlo Ancelotti. With a halcyon 23/24 campaign behind him, there was an understandable sense that England’s hopes this summer should be built around Bellingham. Would it now make sense to move the 21-year-old away from the position where he notched 23 goals and 13 assists for Los Blancos? To limit his influence in the final third and burden his shoulders with more responsibility? 

Congestion, Constriction, Confusion

While enduring England’s three group games at EURO 2024 one particular issue has caused me to bury my head in the vice of my hands more than most. When England are in possession, they have made the pitch agonisingly small. 

Phil Foden wants to tuck in and invert his position from the left, the right-footed Kieran Trippier is also persistently pullin in-field, Harry Kane will always drop relatively deep, Declan Rice likes to open up his stride and drive toward the space occupied by Jude Bellingham and all of sudden you could throw a Ted Baker pocket handkerchief over five or six of the England line-up. In truth, the only player that has even offered the Three Lions a smidge of natural width is Bukayo Saka out on the right.

With Foden, Bellingham and Rice already treading on each other’s toes, is the answer really moving the three of them closer together in the same midfield triangle? Bellingham will be desperate to surge into the spaces already occupied by Foden; while Rice would be forced to forgo any of his own attacking notions to accommodate such movement. 

What you’re left with is a nightmarish scenario; the final 1/3rd pocket the last sunbed in an all-inclusive holiday with Foden, Rice and Bellingham all racing toward it, towel over shoulder, abandoning their responsibilities to the families trailing behind them.

Rice Overcooked

There is an irresistible footballing nirvana in which Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice play alongside each other but it’s as two number eights with someone behind them, not Phil Foden in front of them. 

Sadly, the only way that is possible is if the FA recreate 27-year-old Javier Mascherano in a lab and secure him an English passport. The Three Lions just don’t have that player. 

Oh, how glorious it would be, a proper defensive midfielder and Bellingham and Rice free to roam forward and defend in equal measure; safe in the knowledge there was someone to shield their efforts. It would get the very best out of both Rice and Bellingham and provide precious balance to an England midfield which currently has the equilibrium of Alan Brazil walking a tightrope with a pint in each hand.

As alluded to earlier, Jude Bellingham produced some of his best football as a box-to-box midfielder and has a sumptuous athletic profile to play that role but that was with the disciplined Emre Can in reserve.

Rice has been criminally mis-profiled as an out-and-out defensive midfielder by sections of social media. If at one stage that was Declan Rice’s role, it certainly isn't anymore, especially not in his spectacular debut season for club side Arsenal. 

It is true that Rice has remarkable defensive qualities, these were demonstrated in an England shirt before; against Germany and Italy in EURO 2020. Despite this, even when playing at the base of Arsenal’s midfield, Rice was not a player who demonstrated that much-sought-after defensive control. As the season progressed Mikel Arteta opted to play Rice next to Odegaard with Jorginho or Partey (when available) behind him, both of whom are more metronomic and predictable in their play. 

The 25-year-old is at his assertive best when he is wilfully imposing himself on a game, lunging into interceptions and boldly stepping forward to snuff out danger. The risks associated with this style would be too great when paired with Bellingham.

The Real Madrid star will undoubtedly want to lurch up the pitch in possession and with his club form, it would be ludicrous for Southgate to instruct him otherwise. This would leave Rice exposed and constrained in equal measure, sacrificing his own attacking ambitions and gallivanting runs forward entirely. 

It is worth stating that Phil Foden, Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham are all magnificently intelligent talents. The trio possess enough nous that there is a possibility this midfield could work; they are also gifted enough that they should shine in any system. 

Sadly "could" and “should” don't cut it in knock-out football. The Three Lions no longer possess the precious hours on the training pitch required for the much-suggested reshuffling. 

So, what is the solution then? Is there one? This imperfect proposition of the masses may not cure everything, but England are running out of time and ideas. I would still like to see what Adam Wharton can conjure next to Rice and with Foden missing training this week, it might be time to sacrifice his abilities for the width of Anthony Gordon. 

After the turgid displays we've witnessed thus far, there is no question that changes are needed but I don't believe the stated change, despite all the backing for it, is the answer.

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