England need more from midfield if they’re to win 2022 World Cup

LONDON — Gareth Southgate may only be searching for small tweaks to turn England from Euro 2020 finalists into World Cup winners, but central midfield remains the biggest conundrum he has to solve. Sunday’s result was never in doubt, even if England had to wait until the final 20 minutes to translate their superiority to the scoreline with three late strikes to beat Andorra, 4-0. Consequently, Southgate had a rare opportunity to experiment with ideas that could solidify England’s chances of success in Qatar next year.

Report: Lingard scores twice as England rout Andorra

Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice had a fine European Championships as England’s central midfield pairing. The former was last week named England’s Player of the Year by supporters for defying his inexperience to thrive in the summer’s biggest competition. But as time affords a more considered perspective on England’s failure to end their 55-year wait for a major trophy, it is England’s reluctance to press home their early advantage against Italy, and their gradual loss of control in midfield, that lingers in the memory as much as yet more penalty shoot-out heartache.

Southgate’s attempt to address that over the next 14 months began with a formation switch to 4-3-3 — a more expansive formation many observers wish he’d use on a more regular basis — with Liverpool defender Trent Alexander-Arnold operating as a No.8 alongside 18-year-old Jude Bellingham.

Andorra are currently ranked 156th out of 210 countries in the world by FIFA — for context, England are fourth — and their aim here was palpably predictable: defend deep and keep the score down as low as possible. England therefore knew they would have the majority of possession, ending the match with a mammoth 88 percent, and the challenge became to show speed of thought and inventive passing to shift their opponents out of a rigid 5-4-1 shape.

Bellingham, on only his eighth cap, outshone Alexander-Arnold in that regard, looking remarkably assured and silky on the ball, albeit against limited opposition.

Bukayo Saka, warmly applauded before kick-off as a show of support for his missed penalty against Italy, provided the breakthrough 18 minutes in, making inroads down the left before standing up a cross that Marc Vales could only head straight to Jesse Lingard. The Manchester United winger, with just four minutes of competitive action under his belt all season, scuffed his left-footed shot from inside the box, but it still had enough to sneak inside Andorra goalkeeper Josep Gomes’ left-hand post.

England controlled the ball, but the Andorran defence never really resembled the Alamo. Too often England passed slowly or without enough incision, and the late flurry came once the visitors had tired and Southgate introduced Harry Kane, Jack Grealish and Mason Mount just after the hour mark. By that stage, Alexander-Arnold had been switched to right-back, with Reece James operating as a holding midfielder to little positive effect. Bellingham was withdrawn in that triple change and he continues to look like the most likely candidate to provide England with the midfield impetus they’re searching for, despite his tender years.

Kane scored his 40th international goal — joint-fifth on England’s all-time list now — from the penalty spot after Christian Garcia bundled over Mount in the box. Lingard, the last to try his hand in a No.8 position as the game wore on, added a third with a curling effort Gomes should have saved before Saka headed home a fourth; it was perhaps cathartic that his goal came on his 20th birthday, and at the same end he suffered that penalty heartache against Italy.

Yet it was far from England’s best. Patrick Bamford was largely starved of service on his debut — eventually making way for Kane — and the hosts ended the match with just six shots on target, perhaps a modest return in the circumstances, although Lingard and Saka were among those to emerge with credit.

Southgate contests the charge that his team are too conservative, but there is often still a suspicious distance between the individual talent at his disposal and the collective attacking threat they pose.

To underline the dramatic increase in squad depth England now possess, their last meeting against Andorra came in June 2009, an equally routine 6-0 World Cup qualifying win. Fabio Capello’s line-up that day included many of England’s heavyweights including Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney; six of the starting line-up would go on to play in England’s World Cup opener against the USMNT at the finals a year later.

On Sunday, Southgate made 11 changes from the team that beat Hungary on Wednesday and only one player, Kieran Trippier, started the Euro 2020 final 56 days earlier.

Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
ESPN+ viewers’ guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more

As much as England have always enjoyed dominance over European minnows like this, they have usually relied on their best players to keep it that way, but Southgate is blessed with such riches that his most celebrated stars either had brief cameos or sat this one out altogether.

The 67,171-strong crowd didn’t seem to mind, either. Those in attendance were clinging to the summer vibe, the weather turning unseasonably warm and England’s unofficial tournament anthem, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” rousing the audience before kick-off.

Yet Southgate has to look forward. The big question is whether he can find a way to maintain the defensive resilience that proved the foundation of their run to the Euro final with more attacking dynamism to press home their advantage in tight games, particularly when they are in the ascendancy.

For all the talent at Southgate’s disposal, there isn’t an obvious answer. Bellingham is probably the front-runner, but England’s midfield remains a work in progress.