Kalvin Phillips of England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Be careful what you wish for because you might just get it. It’s an idiom you can apply to a thousand minute aspects of day-to-day life, including, it seems, England playing with just one defensively-minded midfielder.
Gareth Southgate’s men should still stroll their way to a spot at next year’s World Cup - probably with an unbeaten record to boot - but last night’s underwhelming 1-1 draw against Hungary raised some rather uncomfortable questions for the Three Lions.
Perhaps the most pertinent was, ‘How much cotton wool would it take to continuously wrap Kalvin Phillips from head to toe until we fly out to Qatar?’.
Southgate opted to start with a midfield trio of Declan Rice, Mason Mount, and Phil Foden at Wembley, and while it may have looked like a courageous, progressive move on paper, the reality was that it left England feeling somewhat unbalanced in the centre of the park.
Without the injured Phillips by his side, Rice looked unusually isolated at times, and as a result there was an uncharacteristic openness in the engine room.
Prior to the game, Southgate suggested that he couldn’t name a starting XI without “committing a crime” in the eyes of some people. Certainly, the manager’s team selection has come in for criticism at times, and few positions have inspired a debate as heated as the one surrounding his central midfield preferences.
Given the shimmering array of attacking options at England’s disposal, as well as their propensity for grinding out low-scoring successes, there have been mounting calls from some quarters for the seemingly cautious Southgate to cut loose, let his hair down a little, and discard the “double pivot” that took the Three Lions to a first major final in 55 years.
But by getting it wrong on Tuesday night, the manager may have finally silenced his critics. Whether his experiment was a genuine attempt at trying to cram as much firepower into his team as possible, or whether it was his way of proving once and for all that his tactical conservatism is pragmatic rather than idealistic, Southgate’s approach has been vindicated.
Employing Foden and Mount in roaming central roles certainly had the feeling of a worn out parent allowing their bawling child to eat a full bag of Haribo in an effort to teach them a lesson with the subsequent queasiness. As football fans, sometimes our eyes are bigger than our bellies.
If further proof of this was needed, look no further than social media. Even during last night’s match, Kalvin Phillips was trending on Twitter, and as the dust settles this morning, much of the analytical discourse has focused on his absence. It’s rare for a player to see his reputation rise so healthily without him doing so much as lacing up a boot.
It is worth emphasising that both Mount and Foden were deserving of starting spots last night - after all, we’re talking about two players who have been nominated for the Ballon d’Or in the past week.
But one of the integral cornerstones of England’s recent success has been the control they exert over the midfield with Rice and Phillips working in tandem. By contrast, Foden and Mount spent large swathes of Tuesday evening drifting wide, looking for openings in the channels, and unsurprisingly, Southgate’s men relinquished their stranglehold over the key central battle as a result.
In the grand scheme of things, a 1-1 draw isn’t cause for apocalyptic concern. This may have been the first time England failed to win a major tournament qualifier on home soil in nine years, but aside from some bruised pride, the damage shouldn’t be too extensive.
There is a lesson to be learned, however, and the main takeaway is fairly simple - next time Gareth Southgate plays a double pivot in the heart of midfield, just let him get on with it.
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