The bold midfield experiment England must consider with Chelsea and Man Utd duo in squad

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With Cole Palmer and Kobbie Mainoo in the squad, Gareth Southgate can try something new with England's midfield ahead of Euro 2024.

England manager Gareth Southgate is not one to experiment for the sake of it, and with the European Championship just a few short months away he will likely spend the majority of the international break trying to hone the last few details of his starting line-up rather than playing with his new toys. But while much of the team is fairly settled at this stage, there is one piece of the puzzle which needs to be addressed – the midfield. And here, perhaps Southgate can afford to be a little bolder than usual in the friendlies against Brazil and Belgium.

For some time now, the presumed midfield three heading into Euro 2024 has consisted of Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson and Jude Bellingham, and it remains more than likely that it is those three players who will line up against Serbia on 16 June. But there are two major concerns – firstly, over whether the 33-year-old Henderson, who has spent much of the season in a self-inflicted Saudi purgatory, can still cut it, and secondly, who comes in if Henderson struggles or gets injured.

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Since he brutalised the Croatian midfield at the last Euros, the role of understudy has firmly belonged to Kalvin Phillips, but 18 months of exile on the Manchester City bench has done its damage, and his performances on loan at West Ham United have made it plain that he isn’t up to the required standard as it stands. Dropped from the England squad, he leaves a void for Southgate to fill.

One potential answer has already presented itself – 18-year-old Kobbie Mainoo, so impressive for Manchester United in recent months, has earned a late call-up and will get the chance to prove his worth. Although a different kind of player to Henderson in many ways, he looks naturally capable of taking up his mantle, shuttling between defence and attack, forcing turnovers and getting moves going.

Mainoo is the more dynamic of the two players and certainly better with the ball at his feet (as neatly demonstrated when he danced through three Liverpool defenders with one move on Sunday) but lacks Henderson’s passing range and experience. Those will likely come with time, but for now it would be easy to sympathise with Southgate if he preferred to stick with the known quantity for a major tournament. Nevertheless, Mainoo will be given the chance to prove himself an able deputy.

If he doesn’t make Southgate’s grade just yet, however, then there is another direction which the England manager could take – to play Bellingham in a deeper role and try Cole Palmer, so magnificent for Chelsea this season, at number ten.

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James Maddison could do that too, of course, but there’s no question at this point as to which player is on better form and playing at a higher level. Palmer has been Chelsea’s greatest creative nexus and their biggest threat in front of goal at the same time. Maddison is a fine number ten and has managed 12 goal contributions in 20 games, but Palmer has racked up 28 goals and assists in 37 matches so far. Maddison is very good – Palmer is even better, at least at the moment.

Bellingham, of course, is better still. He has 20 goals and nine assists in 31 matches for Real Madrid this season, which is a frankly extraordinary mark and makes him La Liga’s top scorer. Always a brilliant ball-carrier and creator, he has also demonstrated the kind of predatory instincts around the six-yard box that any striker in Europe’s top leagues would love to have. He is already one of England’s best players. To move him to a deeper role could be to pluck the wings off a butterfly.

But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t do a job in a deeper position. He’s better with the ball at his feet than Mainoo and a better passer from deep positions than Henderson – while generating as many tackles and interceptions as either, albeit in a much more advanced role. He might not offer the same level of defensive cover, which would necessitate keeping Declan Rice back more often and denying England his own surging forward runs. There would be sacrifices, and the cost may be excessively steep.

But it may still be the case that a midfield trident of Rice, Bellingham and Palmer offers more in its totality than one of Rice, Henderson and Bellingham. It certainly looks like it offers more overall quality on paper – but perhaps the tactical considerations make it less appealing. Happily, Southgate has two friendlies in which to figure it all out.

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There are, admittedly, other considerations. If Harry Kane, who suffered a high ankle sprain while playing for Bayern Munich over the weekend, isn’t fit to play, then Southgate may want to see how Bellingham links up from the ten slot with Ollie Watkins or Ivan Toney. There is also little argument against Southgate dedicating at least one game to discovering exactly where Henderson is right now after a turbulent year. His raw numbers for At-Ettifaq and Ajax remain solid enough, but he has not been playing at the same level of competition. Southgate needs to know if he still has it in him to do the job he has done so reliably for England for all these years.

For his own part, Henderson has always been underappreciated by a large section of the fan base. He is unfussy and unflashy but has a much broader better passing game than is generally accepted and his movement both in and out of possession is the impressively well-honed product of years of high-level play. He may have thrown himself off a public relations cliff by shipping out to Saudi Arabia, but if the legs are still there, he is still the kind of cog that keeps a well-oiled machine ticking over at peak efficiency. It may well be that the best England midfield includes him.

But this is Southgate’s last chance to try out variations on his themes and to engineer the best possible set-up before the Euros. With so many players either injured or struggling for form, there are more variables than he is accustomed to, and some flexibility will be required regardless of his instincts. England should be one of the best teams at the tournament – get the midfield right, and they could, finally, go all the way.

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