Sunday 13 October 2019 4:58 pm

England have a midfield quandary but the system needs fine-tuning, not dismantling

Overreaction clings to international football, where the relative infrequency of fixtures lends absurd weight to every result.

So it was inevitable that England’s flat performance and surprise defeat in Friday’s European Championship qualifying match against the Czech Republic prompted not only justifiable soul searching about the team’s level but also some wild calls to abandon the current tactical direction and revert to a five-man defence.

What is clear, however, as Gareth Southgate looks to right his faintly listing ship against Bulgaria on Monday evening, is that the setback in Prague was no fluke and the national team has issues that must be addressed.

Read more: Why the Euros revamp is keeping football open to all

Defensively, England are unconvincing. For all of their exciting attacking potential, they were deeply suspect at the back against the Czech Republic and in the previous 5-3 win over Kosovo.

Although they swept their next opponents aside 4-0 last month, a poor Bulgaria side still cut through them with alarming ease at Wembley.

Southgate seems intent on rotating his full-backs, with Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose playing one game and Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ben Chilwell the next, and perhaps that is not helping.

But the bigger problem is at centre-back, where Michael Keane looks out of sorts. There is no easy solution currently at hand.

When fit again, John Stones will likely resume his partnership with Harry Maguire.

In the meantime Southgate’s other options are Joe Gomez, who has not convinced with Liverpool this term, and two uncapped players who were operating at Championship level last season, Tyrone Mings and Chelsea youngster Fikayo Tomori.

Mount experiment backfires

The real quandary lies in midfield, though. Southgate’s experiment with swapping a three-man system for the duo of Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson supporting a more advanced third man – Mason Mount making his first international start – backfired in Prague.

Despite taking an early lead, England failed to exert control, leaving their defence exposed and their forwards’ powder dry.

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - OCTOBER 11:  Michael Keane , Harry Maguire and Declan Rice of England look dejected during the UEFA Euro 2020 qualifier between Czech Republic and England at Sinobo Stadium on October 11, 2019 in Prague, Czech Republic. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
England have looked defensively suspect in recent games. Credit: Getty

There must be temptation to restore the more box-to-box Ross Barkley in place of Mount.

For all that Barkley is a flawed player whose decision-making continues to be a weak point, the Rice-Henderson-Barkley combination was effective enough against Kosovo and Bulgaria, while he had maybe the best of his 32 England outings in the 5-1 win in Montenegro in March.

With opportunities to hone his tactical approach in competitive situations limited by the scarcity of games, Southgate may reasonably feel it is wiser to work on a system that has some legs.

Now’s the time to try new ideas

On the other hand, if ever there was a time to try new idea then this is it.

Whatever happens in Sofia, England will reach Euro 2020; before Friday, their first defeat in a qualifier for 10 years, they had taken maximum points in the group.

Maybe the Rice-Henderson-Mount axis needs more time to gel, to learn their roles. Or maybe Southgate has another possible solution worth trialling.

The England manager’s progress stems from a tactical bravery and now that friendlies have all but disappeared, this is the ideal setting for experimentation.

England are not broken, just as they were not world beaters last month.

A 4-3-3 system or slight variant has been a huge success, freeing Raheem Sterling to reproduce his club form in a similar role, and any move back to a five-man defence would almost certainly sacrifice that.

The defence must improve and the right blend in midfield remains elusive, but there can be hope that if the latter is fixed the former will benefit too. What is needed is fine-tuning, not a dismantling.

Main image credit: Getty