One of the many decisions Gareth Southgate will have to make before this summer is who will he wants to take to this summer’s European Championships (which as of yet have not been cancelled – fingers crossed), and out of these players, which make up his strongest line-up? Most of these will be challenging, given the strength in depth of some and the lack of depth in others, but personally the most interesting area for me is that of central midfield. Not only is there a lot of strength in this position, but it is one of only two roles in Southgate’s preferred 3-4-3 formation that requires more than one player to fill it. This means the conversation is not just about who the best player is, but which two players form the best unit to control the centre of the pitch.
What does Southgate want?
Let us start by looking at what is required from this role and the way England set up. Like I mentioned, the midfield consists of two players forming a double pivot that assist in build-up, progress the ball forward and help shield the defence. As England like to push their wing backs up high to support attacks, this requires the midfield to be even more defensively solid and positionally disciplined than in other formations that use a double pivot (such as the 4-2-3-1), as pushing up too high themselves might leave their centre backs vulnerable. It is worth noting however that against teams that sit back defensively, such as Iceland, Southgate has played a more attacking midfielder in the pivot to help support the front three. They also need to be comfortable with the ball, as there is a risk of being man-marked by teams that operate with a 3-man midfield, which could damage England’s ability to play out from the back.
In build-up, rather than dropping back to progress the ball, the midfield is tasked with finding gaps in the opposition’s defensive lines from which they can receive the ball from the centre backs and move the ball up the field. Once they have the ball, they can then turn and find one of the two inside forwards, the striker or the wingbacks who should have pushed up. If these options are not available, they can either find their midfield partner or recycle the ball back to the defence.
Now that we have looked at what Southgate wants from his midfield, let us consider who he might call up. I’ve considered players that have played regularly (over 900 minutes as of 14th January 2020) in a top 5 European league as either the deepest midfielder or as part of a midfield double-pivot at some point this season. Note that this does exclude several players who have been called up by Southgate recently (most notably Winks and Bellingham), but I feel that it would be difficult for me compare these players, and for Southgate to call them up, when they aren’t even playing regularly for their respective clubs.
Once these filters have been applied, we are left with 9 players: Jordan Henderson, Mason Mount, Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips, James Ward-Prowse, Ben White, Isaac Hayden, Josh Brownhill and Ashley Westwood. Some of these, if we are being honest, might be longshots at best but, nevertheless, we will give them a chance to claim their place in the squad.
We first want to look at how good these players are when they have the ball. As I mentioned before, a key part of this role is to get the ball up to England’s more attacking players, so we will look at their progressive passes p90 and their passes into the final third p90 compared with all of the other players in the Premier League who meet our initial criteria.
As you can see, Henderson is by far the best progressive passer for this position in the league, let alone for England, making him a strong candidate for selection. Other notable players who perform well here are Leeds’ Kalvin Phillips, Chelsea’s Mason Mount and, rather surprisingly, Burnley’s Ashley Westwood. On the other end, both Hayden and Brownhill really struggle in this area, which would rule them out of contention given the need for more of an all-rounder. It is also worth mentioning Ben White who, although he appears rather low at first, is handicapped by a lot of his league games coming at CB for Brighton, making it difficult to pass into the final third regularly.
Another area to look at is how well these players control the area in front of their defence, and to do so we will look at their number of successful defensive actions p90 against their duel win percentage, which encompasses all three types: offensive, defensive and loose ball.
In contrast to the previous section, we see both Mount and Westwood performing poorly here, which potentially rules them out of selection in the best midfield. On the other end, the most active defenders are Phillips and Brownhill, whilst the best in terms of success rate are Brownhill (again), White and Henderson. Overall, with the exception of the first two mentioned, all of the players gave a good account of themselves here and would be able to provide a solid base for England to attack from.
Ability in possession
Whilst it is important that these players get the ball forward, it is also vital that they don’t give the ball away too easily in the middle of the pitch, allowing the opponent to attack England from dangerous areas. Southgate has also placed emphasis of keeping control of the ball and, whilst lateral passing is not amazing from a purely progressive sense, it allows England time to get their wing backs forward to support attacks and keep the width.
This visualisation probably puts the nail in the coffin of anyone who wanted to see Ashley Westwood in an England shirt. Although he is very good at getting the ball forward, this is usually done with the sacrifice of accuracy and, having watched some of Burnley’s games this season, his long, looped passes forward definitely suit their playstyle more than England’s. Another player that falls short of this requirement is Brownhill who, despite playing very conservative passes most of the time, fails to find his target. The safest passer of the group is Declan Rice, who gets the ball to a teammate just shy of 90% of the time, despite being as direct as the likes of Ward-Prowse, Mount and Phillips. He could definitely be an option for games where Southgate wants to control the ball more. Lastly, I want to point out that, despite being the third most direct player, the fact that Henderson’s accuracy is comparable to many of his English colleagues goes to show how good of a passer he is.
Passing further forward
A bonus category I want to look at is how good these players are once they get into the final third. I mentioned before that Southgate has asked of at least one of the CMs to get forward against weaker sides historically and would definitely want this option at the Euros.
This is the area that Mason Mount really shines in due to him playing as a more advanced LCM in a midfield three for Chelsea, and you can see how this allows Southgate more attacking output without sacrificing ball progression. Other (realistic) options here are Henderson and Phillips, both of which have already put down strong cases for starting roles.
Whilst there are no real shocks in terms of who should be called up, I think these plots should give you some idea of who Southgate should take as part of his squad this summer, and who fits into England’s strongest line-up. Whilst they obviously all have strengths, Westwood, Hayden and Brownhill are all too limited in key areas of their game to be even considered for selection. Ben White does slightly better, and it would be interesting to see what his metrics look like if he plays at CM for Brighton more often. However, at the moment, he is far too raw to be called up, both at CM and at CB. As for the best pairing, it is clear to me that Henderson and Phillips perform the combined best across all the areas we looked at, with Henderson being the best progresser of the ball, and Phillips being the one of the most active and strongest defenders.
If we look at the rest of the squad, there will probably be space for all three of the remaining players, depending on who else gets called up. It is hard to say who is the natural third choice for this role, with Rice and Ward-Prowse producing very similar metrics across the board. The key decider would be whether Southgate prefers Rice’s reliability in possession to Ward-Prowse’s set piece expertise, and I have a feeling that he does. As for Mount, I don’t think that comparing him to these players for this role really highlights his best qualities and, ironically, I feel that he is rather hamstrung by Southgate’s insistence on playing this formation. However, due to his versatility, work ethic and attacking output, he will almost certainly find a place into the squad.
Data, clips and video analysis all taken from/done using Wyscout.