December 7, 2022

James Maddison snub sums up Gareth Southgate’s problem with playmakers

England’s 12-minute goal flurry against Germany may have fought off yet another chorus of boos last week, but overall the Nations League taught Gareth Southgate one valuable lesson: his side simply do not score enough.

Luke Shaw‘s 71st-minute strike at Wembley was the first open play goal England had scored in a competitive match since November 2021, when Bukayo Saka netted a 10th against San Marino.

Since massacring a side ranked 211th in the world almost 12 months ago, the Three Lions have relied on Harry Kane‘s relentless reliability from the penalty spot.

Gareth Southgate has struggled to optimise the abundance of creative players at his disposal

Not only did England end the Nations League as the lowest scoring country in the tournament’s top tier, but half of their goals came by way of spot-kicks, proving just how much Southgate has struggled to unlock defences from open play.

Yet, whether by fear or obstinacy, the Three Lions boss has stood by his tried-and-tested model, calling on well-rounded and industrious players rather than creative specialists such as James Maddison and Trent Alexander-Arnold.

In addition, star playmakers Jack Grealish and Phil Foden have struggled to perform as well on international duty as they have for Manchester City, suggesting that perhaps the system is stifling England’s most threatening players.

With little over a month to go before the World Cup, Sportsmail has analysed Southgate’s apparent complex with managing creative playmakers.

Luke Shaw's 71st-minute strike versus Germany was England's first open-play goal since March

Luke Shaw's 71st-minute strike versus Germany was England's first open-play goal since March

Luke Shaw’s 71st-minute strike versus Germany was England’s first open-play goal since March

Southgate must make room for Maddison 

With five goals and two assists in his first seven Premier League matches, Maddison is statistically England’s most in-form player at the moment, excluding captain Harry Kane.

The Leicester midfielder also contributed an astonishing four goals and three assists from his final four matches of last season against Norwich, Watford, Chelsea and Southampton.

Despite his fearsome form in the final third, the 25-year-old has only won a singular cap for the Three Lions at senior level, coming on as a substitute during England’s 7-0 thrashing against Montenegro in 2019.

Leicester star James Maddison has been persistently left out of Southgate's Three Lions plans

Leicester star James Maddison has been persistently left out of Southgate's Three Lions plans

Leicester star James Maddison has been persistently left out of Southgate’s Three Lions plans

Maddison’s habit of being on the periphery is no fault of his own. With Foden, Grealish and Mason Mount all ahead of him in Southgate’s pecking order, the Foxes star is simply part of a talented generation of attacking midfielders.

However, it has become apparent when watching England that Southgate lacks a central playmaker pulling the strings.

Against both Italy and Germany, the manager opted for his favoured 5-2-3 formation with Raheem Sterling and Foden in the wide areas alongside striker Kane. 

By consistently deploying a back five and a double pivot of Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham, Southgate has left himself no room for a creative No 10, arguably the most vital position in terms of creating goalscoring opportunities.

The Foxes midfielder has contributed five goals and two assists in the Premier League so far

The Foxes midfielder has contributed five goals and two assists in the Premier League so far

The Foxes midfielder has contributed five goals and two assists in the Premier League so far

With Maddison in the squad, Southgate would have the tactical flexibility to play a more attacking line-up at the World Cup against lower-ranked nations such as Iran and Wales.

His 5-2-3 could conceivably become a 4-3-3 with relative ease, replacing Reece James with Maddison in central midfield and moving hybrid defender Kyle Walker across slightly to the conventional right-back position.

While he may feel it’s too late in the day to rip apart his 5-2-3 plans from the outset, Southgate would hugely benefit from having Maddison on the bench as well. 

Let’s imagine England need a goal late on during a tight match and no matter how hard they prod and probe, nothing seems to be working: it’s frankly a situation Three Lions fans know all too well.

The 25-year-old playmaker scored a stunning free-kick against Nottingham Forest on Monday

The 25-year-old playmaker scored a stunning free-kick against Nottingham Forest on Monday

The 25-year-old playmaker scored a stunning free-kick against Nottingham Forest on Monday

This is arguably the perfect time for a player with Maddison’s goalscoring nous and imaginative skillset.

No matter how poor Leicester have been this season, the Foxes’ talisman has managed to chalk up goals and assists.

Above all, England would profit from a playmaker who knows how to step up when the chips are down. 

Unshackled Alexander-Arnold could be a different beast 

Southgate has continually snubbed Alexander-Arnold throughout his tenure as England boss, most recently dropping the right-back from his squad against Germany last time out.

Despite his otherworldly talents, the Liverpool star has only made 17 international appearances for England, losing out to Walker, James and Kieran Trippier on the right flank in recent years.

And yet, Alexander-Arnold boasts an incredible win percentage for the Three Lions, triumphing in every single match he has played excluding England’s third-place face-off against Belgium at the 2018 World Cup.

Trent Alexander-Arnold was left out of the Three Lions squad to face Germany last week

Trent Alexander-Arnold was left out of the Three Lions squad to face Germany last week

Trent Alexander-Arnold was left out of Southgate’s squad against Germany on September 26

But Southgate is not alone in his opinion of the defender. Certain sceptics have jumped to criticise Alexander-Arnold after a handful of poor defensive displays in a Liverpool shirt.

The right-back was arguably at fault for two of the three goals Jurgen Klopp’s side conceded against Brighton, but he continued to showcase his talents in attack as the Reds launched a comeback.

Few would argue against the opinion that Alexander-Arnold’s defending is inferior to his international competitors, but his consistency as a playmaker year after year has made him one of — if not the — greatest attacking defender of all time.

The Liverpool defender was arguably at fault for two of Brighton's goals in the Reds' 3-3 draw

The Liverpool defender was arguably at fault for two of Brighton's goals in the Reds' 3-3 draw

The Liverpool defender was arguably at fault for two of Brighton’s goals in the Reds’ 3-3 draw

With the amount he gets forward under Klopp, there’s no doubt Alexander-Arnold is regularly caught out of position in defence, as there are only two centre-halves to cover on the break should Liverpool lose possession.

But with Walker behind him in Southgate’s back five, arguably the best right-sided defender in the world at negating counterattacks, the 23-year-old would be freed from the shackles of constantly watching over his shoulder.

If Southgate insists on not playing a conventional No 10 to unlock defences, Alexander-Arnold seems like the perfect solution, competent at flooding the box with pinpoint crosses and threading passes over the opposition’s back line.

The England boss has favoured playing Chelsea right-back Reece James in his back five shape

The England boss has favoured playing Chelsea right-back Reece James in his back five shape

The England boss has favoured playing Chelsea right-back Reece James in his back five shape

Bellingham is finally in — but was he too late to the party? 

Based on international form alone, teenager Bellingham heads to Qatar as England’s best player after his performances against Italy and Germany.

His importance in Southgate’s 5-2-3 cannot be overstated. In essence, he is the glue that binds the defence and attack.

Although Rice is equally important in his own right — crucially tasked with breaking down opponents’ attacks and neutralising key playmakers in midfield — the West Ham star is not blessed with Bellingham’s close control and dribbling skillset.

Teenager Jude Bellingham has become a key part of England's plans ahead of the World Cup

Teenager Jude Bellingham has become a key part of England's plans ahead of the World Cup

Teenager Jude Bellingham has become a key part of England’s plans ahead of the World Cup

Capable of riding a challenge in the engine room, the Borussia Dortmund star hopes to commit a few extra bodies in midfield before passing the ball on to Foden and Sterling, who are keeping wide in a bid to hold Southgate’s shape, or Kane, who is often dropping deep into the vacant No 10 role.

Finally, Southgate has realised that the 19-year-old offers significantly more in attack than industrious midfield pair Kalvin Phillips and Jordan Henderson, who have each been stalwarts for England over the past few seasons.

However, with Bellingham only starting eight matches for the Three Lions ahead of the World Cup, England have had little time to adapt to his offerings in midfield.

Disciplined shape is imprisoning Foden and Grealish 

Most nations in world football would have Grealish and Foden in their plans for Qatar.

The Manchester City pair flaunted their talents at the weekend during the champions’ 6-3 mauling of Manchester United, with Foden grabbing his first career hat-trick at the Etihad.

But goals have seemed to elude both playmakers whilst on international duty — Grealish has only netted once in 24 appearances, while Foden has scored twice in 18.

Phil Foden scored his first career hat-trick as Manchester City smashed Manchester United 6-3

Phil Foden scored his first career hat-trick as Manchester City smashed Manchester United 6-3

Phil Foden scored his first career hat-trick as Manchester City smashed Manchester United 6-3

Under Pep Guardiola, the English duo are gifted the freedom to roam away from their respective flanks in search of space, almost playing as No 10s in support of Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva in midfield.

While Manchester City operate with two natural No 10s and a penalty-box predator in Erling Haaland that is relentlessly sniffing out chances, England instead have a striker that likes to drop deep into the vacant space behind him.

This system causes a major problem for Southgate’s wingers, who feel they must hold the shape out wide in support of Kane, rather than roaming off the flanks.

Both Foden and Jack Grealish (above) have struggled for goals in Southgate's 5-2-3 formation

Both Foden and Jack Grealish (above) have struggled for goals in Southgate's 5-2-3 formation

Both Foden and Jack Grealish (above) have struggled for goals in Southgate’s 5-2-3 formation

Were Kane to run in behind like Haaland at City, the opposition’s defence would be stretched backwards and this would subsequently create more space for the likes of Grealish and Foden in-field.

By changing shape, reinventing Kane’s role in the team or loosening the screws a little on his rigid formation, Southgate would hand the Manchester City stars a better chance of mirroring their club form at international level.

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