Gareth Southgate has a problem. The England manager needs to find a solution in his team’s midfield – and his attempted fix on Friday night backfired badly.
England had cruised through this Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, scoring goals galore against their limited Group A opponents.
But against the Czech Republic on Friday night – where they suffered their first qualifying defeat in 10 years – their long-standing difficulty in building play from the back and up the pitch through midfield resurfaced in glaring fashion. The problems were plain to see in the summer at the Nations League finals against the Netherlands, when a lack of options led to England’s centre backs taking costly risks and the team being pegged back in their own third for long periods.
“The deep, embedded problem for English football and England teams is that they had no options to play through midfield,” Gary Neville told Sky Sports at the time.
It was the same story in Prague.
Mason Mount replaced Ross Barkley in the starting line-up after a fine start to the season which had seen him displace his Chelsea team-mate in the Premier League. But rather than slotting in just ahead of Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice in a midfield three, the 20-year-old debutant was pushed forwards into a far more advanced role.
Perhaps Southgate had been emboldened by England’s previous big wins in this group, where they had smashed at least four goals in each fixture. But, after the early penalty, it became clear England’s shift to a 4-2-4 only served to amplify the team’s passing problems.