Man Utd midfielder Kobbie Mainoo
Man Utd midfielder Kobbie Mainoo.
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Who should solve England’s defensive midfield dilemma?

Gareth Southgate faces a major decision on his midfield this summer, as England head to the European Championship as one of the favourites for success.

Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham are guaranteed to start in central midfield if fit, with the latter having thrived in an advanced role for Real Madrid this season. Bellingham’s brilliance further forward has raised question marks as to who should start alongside Rice, given the lack of natural options in a more defence-minded role.

Jordan Henderson’s decline and Kalvin Phillips’ loss of form have presented a selection headache, with Southgate unlikely to opt for a more creative type, such as James Maddison or Phil Foden, against elite nations in the summer.

March’s friendly fixtures with Brazil and Belgium represent a final chance to experiment, two fixtures which allow England a chance to look at their options against leading rivals.

Here, we look at five options Southgate could test ahead of Euro 2024.

Who should solve England’s midfield dilemma?

Kobbie Mainoo

Kobbie Mainoo’s exciting emergence has led to calls for his inclusion in next month’s squad, with the Manchester United teenager having excelled in recent weeks. The 18-year-old has made just 11 appearances in the Premier League, but the comfort he has shown in the side and possession makes him an appealing candidate.

Mainoo glides with the ball and has shown incredible composure when under pressure, with last weekend’s performance at Luton an example of his confidence, appearing at ease when senior stars around him panicked at Kenilworth Road.

Ian Wright was among the names to have championed Mainoo for an England call-up this week, and the Three Lions might need to act quickly with Ghana looking to secure his services.

Caution must be taken to prevent too much pressure being placed on the teenager, but Mainoo has already shown his capability to handle setbacks. He recovered from a mistake in the defeat at West Ham in December to win Manchester United’s Player of the Month award in January, a recognition for a superb run of performances that included an outstanding solo winner at Wolves.

Trent Alexander-Arnold

Trent Alexander-Arnold struggled to convince Gareth Southgate he could be England’s right-back, but increasing minutes in midfield has provided the 25-year-old a chance in the side. Alexander-Arnold’s influence inverting into midfield at Liverpool has seen Southgate take a look at the full-back in a central position, with the 23-cap star shining in a 4-0 win over Malta in June.

“He (Southgate) explained there could be a potential opportunity in midfield,” Alexander-Arnold said in November when discussing his summer audition in midfield.

“When I heard those words, it ignited something within me. There was a chance to go out there and take it. I think that’s what I did.

Reservations remain over Alexander-Arnold’s ability to perform in tight areas of the pitch against elite opponents, but he possesses arguably the most expansive passing range in the squad. With the assurance of Rice alongside him, he could be an option to help unlock defences in the summer.

Curtis Jones

Curtis Jones is one of several uncapped talents pushing for a place in the squad, having cemented himself as an integral part of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool midfield.

A member of England’s victorious u-21 side at last summer’s European Championship, the midfielder scored the fortuitous final winner against Spain as Cole Palmer’s free-kick deflected in off his back.

Though not a natural defensive midfielder, Jones boasts attributes that appear well-suited to a two-man pivot alongside Declan Rice. Comfortable receiving the ball under pressure, he ranks in the top five per cent of midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues for progressive passes received per 90 and pass completion across the last 12 months, and in the top eight per cent for progressive carries per game.

No English midfielder has a higher pass completion percentage than Jones (90.4%) in the Premier League this season and that elite-level ball retention could be crucial against top nations.

Ross Barkley

Ross Barkley’s renaissance has been one of the stories of the season in the Premier League, with the midfielder finding a home at newly-promoted Luton Town.

Signed on a free transfer from Nice with his career at a crossroads, Barkley has reignited his fortunes in the unlikely surroundings of Kenilworth Road. Trusted in a deeper role, has has thrived, offering confident carry in possession and proactiveness in his passing.

Barkley is physically powerful, excellent on the half-turn and capable of dribbling past opponents with ease, attributes which could help England break through lines at Euro 2024. The 30-year-old has found a discipline to his game that he perhaps lacked as a youngster, with his move from advanced playmaker to deep-lying conductor having required greater maturity on and off the ball.

Barkley’s return for England before the summer would be a shock but there’s an argument that few midfielders eligible for the Three Lions have played to such levels this season.

Player Analysis: How Ross Barkley is flourishing at Luton Town

Rico Lewis

Rico Lewis was recognised with an England debut in November’s internationals, reward for a strong start to the season at Manchester City. The teenager has broken into Pep Guardiola’s plans, fulfilling roles in both full-back positions and in midfield.

That flexibility has boosted his chances of securing a place at Euro 2024, with comfortability in various positions sure to have been noted by Southgate and his selection staff.

“What a player. What a player,” Pep Guardiola said on the 19-year-old in November.

“I have been a manager for 14, 15 years training unbelievable players. To find a player like him playing in the pockets, how he has to move in holding midfield, full-back coming inside moving in the spaces – he is one of the best I ever trained by far.

 

“When you play inside, you have to be 360 and you have passes coming from everywhere, that is the most difficult position to play. As a central defender, all you see is in front of you. He is a big talent and to find that is not easy, to come from the Academy, he always trained so good.”

Boasting a pass completion of 91% across the last 12 months, Lewis ranks in the 97th percentile of midfielders and 99th percentile of full-backs in Europe’s top five leagues.

Read – England: Who will be on the plane for Euro 2024?

See more – Four talking points ahead of the Champions League action

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