Square pegs in round holes? This magic triangle can fire up England’s World Cup hopes
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Although he was unquestionably the first choice of few, his quiet and unassuming manner and ability to face up to matters on and off the pitch seemed to fit well with the Football Association’s determination to develop a highly-promising crop of young players. Southgate’s involvement with the Under-21s setup had given him an insight into what could lie ahead at a senior level and he seemed a logical, if not widely approved, choice after a chaotic and unsuccessful period.
After guiding the Three Lions through an admittedly favourable qualifying group ahead of Russia 2018, Southgate’s England were economical rather than exceptional as they became only the second men’s senior side to reach the semi-final of a World Cup Finals since 1966, matching the achievements of Sir Bobby Robson, Gary Lineker, Paul Gascoigne et al some 28 years earlier.
A last-four defeat to a talented but clearly beatable Croatia side seemed to set in motion a thought process that this England needed something different to come through the big occasions. That line of thinking was only enhanced when they suffered a penalty shoot-out defeat against Italy in Euro 2020, where bravery on the ball and belief went missing during a second-half largely dominated by Roberto Mancini’s side.
Since then, from the outside, it feels like Southgate’s thinking has become clouded. Players have been given unfamiliar roles, tactical tweaks and system amendments have become the norm, and a plan of controlling and dictating the place and flow of games - which can often decide meetings at the top level - seems to have crept further out of sight.
As the title of this piece suggests, the time for square pegs in round holes is over and a decisive and consistent team selection is needed if England are to realise their all-too-obvious potential in Qatar over the next seven weeks.
Fortunately for Southgate, he possesses three players that can offer versatility, control, and dynamism in his midfielder, and between them they should be able to firmly seize the initiative as they do at a domestic level. In Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham, and Phil Foden, Southgate possesses a triumvirate that can form the crux of a progressional England side that will benefit not only the former Middlesbrough manager, but also his successors, whoever they may be.
The term ‘generational talent’ seems to be the new en vogue phrase when it comes to football but it can arguably be applied to Foden, who I firmly believe is England most’s naturally gifted player since Paul Gascoigne. Given added responsibility and belief, the Manchester City midfielder can become one of the big stars of the upcoming tournament and firmly establish himself as one of the best creative talents in world football.
Without creeping into hyperbole, Foden’s progression under the meticulous Pep Guardiola has been near faultless, and he heads into Qatar in form after gaining the trust and belief of the City boss. Southgate must following the Spaniard’s lead if he is to give his side a creative edge that was missing at key moments during recent major tournaments.
If Foden is at the top of a midfield trio, offering support to three attacking players, the role of the two players behind him becomes equally important and an ability to read the game and provide discipline will be integral to success in Qatar.
With all due respect to West Ham United and the wonderful job undertaken by David Moyes, Declan Rice feels like he has developed into a midfield player that would not look out of place in a side competing for major honours on a regular basis.
Offering some ballast and steel, the Hammers star has really matured at domestic and international level and offers Southgate genuine composure and intelligence in the heart of his side. I made a point of focusing my attention on Rice during West Ham’s recent defeat at Manchester United and even though he came out on the wrong side, his awareness and grittiness in an intense midfield battle shone through.
And then there is Bellingham, a player that could be anything he wants to be on any stage in any league. Still only 19, with fewer than 20 senior caps to his name, the Borussia Dortmund midfielder has proven he can seize the initiative in Champions League games and needs the reins taken off him at international level.
Despite his tentative years, Bellingham is already viewed as a real leader with the Bundesliga club and has proven his worth against some of European football’s biggest names since making a shock move to Germany in 2020. His cool, calm, and collected nature on the ball and ferocious work-rate out of possession means he has to be an integral cog of any England side and I have no doubt he will be for years to come.
There are many doubts lingering as Southgate prepares to whittle down his initial squad to a 26-man selection that will travel to Qatar later this month. Even more questions remain when it comes to naming his starting eleven for the opening game against Iran.
This is not time for square pegs in round holes, it’s time for decisiveness and making a talented midfield trio central to his plans can help Southgate go some way to quieting some of the understandable concerns many have over his ability to get the best out of England at a major tournament.