Avoiding relegation to the second tier of the Nations League may be the obvious target for England in their matches with Italy, tonight, and Germany, on Monday, but Gareth Southgate could be forgiven for having other priorities.
Less than two months out from the World Cup, the Three Lions manager faces a midfield conundrum that, at the very least, requires a satisfactory short-term fix this week and could realistically have a major impact on the team’s chances of success in Qatar.
It stems from the absence of Kalvin Phillips, who underlined his importance to Southgate’s preferred XI during England’s run to the final of Euro 2020 last year but has been sidelined with a shoulder injury that requires surgery and may rule him out of this winter’s global tournament.
His unavailability means England do not have a single player in their 28-man squad who currently operates for their club as a deep-lying defensive midfielder – a major issue for a manager who has often favoured fielding two at once in a double pivot.
Declan Rice has previously filled that role and is the most likely to be asked to do so in Milan, but the West Ham captain increasingly appears to see himself as more of a box-to-box player, with designs on influencing the game in attack as well as defence.
Jordan Henderson could be asked to sit alongside Rice, having been drafted into the squad upon Phillips’ withdrawal at the weekend. But Henderson relishes pressing and supporting the attack, making him even more of a square peg for this round hole.
At least one defensive screen is needed because the man best placed to come in for Phillips is the attack-minded Jude Bellingham. The Borussia Dortmund midfielder has pushed his case for an England starting place further with a string of strong displays this season.
Bellingham is at his best when bursting forward and arriving in the opponents’ penalty box to score or set up goals. There is an argument that he might be best used by England at No10, although that would mean losing another offensive player.
For all his talent and dazzling displays in the Bundesliga and Champions League, Bellingham’s international highlights reel is so far mostly moments of skill rather than decisive interventions. He is yet to show his full potential for England.
Southgate’s conundrum is how to reshuffle his midfield in the absence of Phillips, and preferably with a tactical adjustment that allows the prodigious Bellingham to thrive.
The England manager’s strategic thinking has been unfairly maligned at times, but he has proven able to devise and implement new gameplans to maximise the talent at his disposal.
His adoption of a three-man defence proved so successful that it not only steered England to the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time in 28 years, it also helped Harry Maguire become an £80m defender.
Despite that success, Southgate then tore up that playbook in favour of a 4-2-3-1 system whose chief benefits included stationing Raheem Sterling higher up the field. Sterling went on to enjoy a run of 10 goals in 10 games and star at Euro 2020.
Southgate does have some more left-field options that he could employ in defensive midfield, such as James Ward-Prowse, Eric Dier and even Phil Foden.
But the former made little impression when used in a double pivot with Rice in June’s goalless draw with Italy, Dier is out of the habit having been used in defence by Tottenham manager Antonio Conte, and the previous experiment with Foden in a deeper role was a gambit to unpick weaker opponents who sit deep, not the likes of Germany or Italy.
It may be that Bellingham is asked to adapt, and it shouldn’t be beyond a 19-year-old who has already demonstrated maturity and intelligence to complement his obvious technical and physical attributes.
Either way, with Phillips a doubt for the World Cup and the forthcoming Nations League matches representing Southgate’s last chance to hit upon a tactical solution before their opening game of the tournament against Iran on 21 November, the clock is ticking.