England's midfield lacked invention against Scotland

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England’s central midfield drew rave reviews for their dynamism against Croatia but were accused of being ponderous in the goalless draw with Scotland. What changed? 

While Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice were effective at muzzling Croatia’s technicians, taking the ball and opening up a well organised and obdurate Scotland unit was a different task all together. 

For some of his harsher critics, Southgate’s insistence on keeping two ‘holding midfielders’ in the team was a sign of undue caution against supposedly inferior opposition.

Is that criticism justified or are England’s creativity problems a little more complex?

Here Telegraph Sport analyses England’s midfield performance against Scotland and suggests a possible tweak Southgate could make in the knockout stages.

Kalvin Phillips in a more restrained role

A pre-tournament concern was that Southgate’s preference for two deep-lying midfielders, or ‘No 6s’ in modern football parlance, would make England’s ball progression too lateral and stale. Against Croatia, Phillips’ ability to receive the ball in higher positions and even make runs beyond Harry Kane brought the system to life. England’s winning goal came from Kyle Walker finding Phillips in space behind the Croatia midfield, and he kept his head to assist Raheem Sterling.

Against Scotland, Southgate tried to change the dynamic of his team by replacing Walker and Kieran Trippier with more attacking full-backs Luke Shaw and Reece James. To compensate for greater adventure from these positions, it seems Southgate instructed Phillips to play a role closer to the one he plays for Leeds as a deep-lying distributor. The contrasting average positions from England’s first two games tell a story: Phillips is more attached to Rice and the full-backs further forward.

England’s average positions against Croatia and Scotland: Note how much closer Phillips (14) and Rice (4) are to each other, and Scotland’s extra numbers centrally. 

Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice played as closer pair against Scotland

England did not get enough attacking production from James or Shaw though to gain the full benefits of this tactical approach. The full-backs could have been even more aggressive given Scotland’s 5-3-2 shape did not put them up against direct opponents, and when they did get into promising positions their final ball failed them. Shaw and James delivered just three crosses between them. 

Ball progression through the middle of the pitch was difficult against three Scotland central midfielders, and two strikers in Lyndon Dykes and Che Adams who chased back tirelessly. Against Croatia, Rice and Phillips played distinct roles, with Rice operating deeper and towards the left and Phillips higher up and to the right. 

Against Scotland, there was far more duplication in midfield with both players trying to get England playing with passes from deep. Phillips attempted 11 long passes against Scotland and just 6 against Croatia, so this was more typical of his role under Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds. Rice and Phillips played a number of similar passes, with both favouring the right wing (Scotland’s stronger side with Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney). Reece James was the most frequent pass recipient from both players. This is a potential drawback of playing two right-footers as midfield partners.

Phillips and Rice’s distribution overlapped far more against Scotland

Neither managed a key pass in the game, though Rice did lead the team with seven passes into the final third. Rice completed just one switch of play (defined as a pass which travel more than 40 yards of the width of the pitch), which given England’s plan was to attack through their full-backs leaves room for improvement. Phillips completed three switches. 

How England’s system could have worked

England’s performance on Friday night was not uniformly terrible and in the opening exchanges they fashioned some good openings, hitting the bar with a John Stones header from a corner.

When one team (England) is playing a 4-3-3 against a 5-3-2 (Scotland) it is a tactical truism that the team playing with a back four will have numerical advantage on the flanks. What gave England some early encouragement was the way their front three of Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Phil Foden occupied Scotland’s back five, leaving the full-backs as the spare players. England’s game plan would have been to keep feeding the ball to Shaw and James, but they did not always do so quickly enough.

This early move was an example of how England’s system could have worked. With Dykes and Adams in narrow starting positions, it was easy for England’s centre-backs to funnel the ball to James who was in acres of space on the right. Foden’s high and wide starting position has Robertson and Scotland backline pushed deep, creating space between the lines for Phillips to occupy like he did against Croatia. Players have the freedom to improvise and make their own decisions on the pitch, and Phillips opting for a flick back to Foden was probably the wrong option with so much space in front of him had he turned out. Nevertheless, the build-up play was promising.

How England’s ball progression should have worked

Scotland made some in-game adjustments and left England very few avenues to explore. Dykes and Adams split wider, making it more difficult to simply chip passes over their head to Shaw or James in oceans of room. Without this quick and efficient outball, England’s build-up play was slow and stodgy.

England’s pressing less of a feature

They could not sustain the intensity on a sweltering afternoon at Wembley, but England’s pressing in the opening 20 or 25 minutes against Croatia was impressive. Led by the industry of Mason Mount, Phillips and Rice, they disrupted the rhythm of Croatia’s midfield artisans Marcelo Brozovic, Mateo Kovacic and Luka Modric.

This aspect of their game was conspicuous by its absence against Scotland, with many observers noting that England looked leggy and lethargic. It is certainly possible that fatigue limited England’s ability to press aggressively high up the pitch, but it could also have been in anticipation of Scotland playing a more direct style. If a coach does not expect his opponent to try and play out from the back through midfield, they will instruct their midfielders to sit off and fight for the second ball in front of the centre backs.

Against Croatia, England applied 107 defensive pressures in the middle third of the pitch according to publicly available data on FBRef. Against Scotland, this number was just 48 with Phillips recording half as many successful pressures as against Croatia. Partly, this is a function of styles and the two games’ different patterns. Croatia had 51 per cent of possession to Scotland’s 39 and played an extra 90 passes, so England spent more time defending.

Midfield pressing was less of a feature vs Scotland than Croatia

Even so, it is notable that England”s midfield was far more impressive in a game based on disruption than construction. When the responsibility was on England to take the initiative and impose their own in-possession style, they fell short. It is a familiar story.

They also potentially under-estimated Scotland’s technical quality. A back three containing a Manchester United midfielder in Scott McTominay and Arsenal’s attacking left-back Kieran Tierney was always going to be able to handle the ball. With Harry Kane unable to close down with any ferocity, Scotland found it easy to settle on the ball and break England”s first line of pressure.

How can Southgate change things?

Southgate is not about to follow the advice of social media critics who want him to throw caution to the wind by playing just one holding midfielder behind two attacking types like Mount and Foden.

On this, Southgate’s reasoning is sound. International tournaments are won by teams with stable foundations who concede very little to the opposition. His job is to find that balance between attack and defence, rather than pick a Premier League XI of the season which gives players a pat on the back for their club performances. Tournament favourites France, who have more world class talents at their disposal than England, have been playing N’Golo Kante and Adrien Rabiot alongside Paul Pogba in midfield with conservative full-backs in Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez. Southgate’s caution does not make him an outlier among international managers, quite the reverse.

Playing two attacking 8s risks leaving Rice or Phillips and the two centre backs exposed to counter-attacks as the only three players behind the ball. Southgate will always want four, if not five, players ready to spring into action in transition and extinguish attacks at source.

A different way of doing this though could be a 3-4-3, which has given England a modicum of success in the past but has not been seen so far this summer. There are three potential advantages to this set up: firstly, it offers a softer landing for Harry Maguire to return to the team after a long injury lay off. England are also stacked with potential wing-backs, with a player like the unused Bukayo Saka coming back into the picture. The presence of wing-backs should also pinch England’s inside forwards closer to Kane, who is in urgent need of support.

How England could line up in a 3-4-3

England could adopt the same positional set-up as Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea with three defenders and Rice and Phillips in front forming a defensive core of five players who rarely stray. However, a variation on this system could see Southgate pair one of Rice or Phillips with Mount (or if Covid rules keep him out of the Czech Republic game, Jude Bellingham). 

Like the 4-2-3-1, Southgate gets to keeps his four players behind the ball for defensive balance but with three defenders and one holding midfielder in a diamond shape rather than two centre-backs and two midfielders in a box. This allows for more varied angles when building play. 

With the security of a back three, Mount or Bellingham would have the freedom to play in more advanced areas and leave the holding player isolated, something Phillips is well used to with Leeds.