Southgate's midfield experiment fails as England labour

Hamilton: England 'running through treacle' (0:51)

Tom Hamilton says England are not living up to the high expectations seen before the start of Euro 2024. (0:51)

FRANKFURT, Germany -- The Trent Alexander-Arnold midfield experiment at Euro 2024 has surely failed after he was slotted into a central position, rather than in his usual right-back role. England manager Gareth Southgate now has to ask himself whether he perseveres with a plan at least a year in the making, which has so far yielded next to no signs of encouragement, or throws something else together in the middle of a tournament.

It is a troubling place to be. The Three Lions were lucky to escape Frankfurt with a 1-1 draw against Denmark on Thursday. Alarmingly for Southgate, they shortened the period in which they were good against Serbia and elongated the bad, spending more than two-thirds of this game looking badly disjointed and unable to exert and sort of meaningful control.

Alexander-Arnold is an undeniably talented and versatile footballer, and despite being deployed into a "hybrid" role for Liverpool where he moves centrally in attack, he's been unable to deliver for England as a midfielder who can split defences with his passing vision. He was not solely to blame for this -- a collective malaise engulfed England almost from the moment Harry Kane gave them an 18th-minute lead -- but Southgate's hope that Alexander-Arnold can provide a fresh dynamic to his midfield looks more misguided with every passing minute.

For all the individual talent at Southgate's disposal, he is right when asserting England lack a playmaker, which has been their undoing in the past: think Italy's Andrea Pirlo in 2012, Croatia's Luka Modric in 2018, Frenkie de Jong in the 2019 Nations League semifinal, or Marco Verratti and Jorginho in the last Euros. These are players able to set the tempo of a side, the puppet masters pulling the strings.

Southgate admitted on Wednesday that Alexander-Arnold is not that type of player, but "what I do see is that range of passing and that ability to open up a defence that might be blocking spaces" before adding, "we know it's a work in progress." That last line is some understatement on the evidence of England's opening two matches.

Arsenal's Declan Rice has emerged as one of the finest midfielders in Europe, but his best attributes are positioning, winning the ball and, of late, driving forward with purpose. The idea of a double pivot with Alexander-Arnold alongside him is that the Liverpool man's impressive quarterback-style passing range will unlock the best from England's rich array of attacking talent, while his experience as a defender helps advance his understanding of the out-of-possession requirements in that position.

Alexander-Arnold recently claimed he has spent around a year taking advice from Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland about the details of his midfield role. A well-placed source told ESPN that the idea was first floated before the last Euros, for which Alexander-Arnold was sidelined through injury.

However, the idea is far from the execution judging on England's matches at the tournament, as the midfield gamble is not paying dividends.

And as Southgate gathered his thoughts in the Deutsche Bank Park, he admitted that he has been grappling with the problem since taking charge in 2016, given that England's lack of midfield control is a time-honoured tournament failing.

"We have been trying to find a solution in midfield for seven or eight years," Southgate said after the match. "If we hadn't had Declan Rice for the last few years, I don't know where we'd have been.

"Unfortunately, Kalvin [Phillips] wasn't a possible for us for this tournament and [Jordan Henderson] the same, so we're trying to find something different. Some of that has worked, some of that hasn't worked so well, but over the years that's been a consistent problem we've tried to find the best way of solving and we've got to do that in the coming weeks as well."

The most damning thing for Southgate is that his grand plan looked thrown together. This was precisely the sort of test it was designed for: Denmark sat with a five-man defence out of possession, resilient and tough to break down, but ended up dictating terms in the middle of the pitch.

Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Morten Hjulmand, who equalised with a brilliant long-range strike on 34 minutes, commanded that area of the pitch with Christian Eriksen flitting in between the lines further forward. Their fluidity negated the argument that a poor pitch cutting up easily could explain England's staccato rhythm.

It was apt that the goal England conceded came from a misplaced pass and a large gap in midfield with England slow to close Hjulmand down. England laboured in the press and lost possession with alarming regularity.

Southgate's decision to replace Alexander-Arnold with Conor Gallagher in the 54th minute was a more damning verdict than anything he was every likely to say afterward. Southgate typically waits until after the hour mark to change games; this was only the fifth time in 21 major tournament games that he made the first substitution of the match.

What followed was even more surprising as Kane was withdrawn for Ollie Watkins when England needed a goal, part of a triple change that also saw Eberechi Eze and Jarrod Bowen replace Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden. Little improvement followed.

Southgate held a meeting with the players on Tuesday explaining why there was some negativity mixed into the reaction to England's opening win over Serbia. He may need to stage another one in the coming days given the likely fallout here, a tone set by thousands of England supporters inside the stadium booing the team at full-time.

"Maybe the biggest thing is we have to accept the environment that we're in and the expectations that are around us," Southgate said. "We are going to have to walk towards that challenge. At the moment we're falling a little bit short of that. Ultimately that's my responsibility. I'm the manager and I've got to guide this group in the best way possible. To achieve extraordinary things, you have to go through some difficult moments. Today was a difficult moment without a doubt, towards the end of the game especially.

"We have to find the best way to solve that. Of course we need the fans, you know we need the fans, but I have to say they've been brilliant, absolutely brilliant in the stadiums. And I can completely understand their frustration with the way that we played, but what I would say is these boys aren't lacking effort at the moment.

"But we've got to find a better way of playing, we've got to find more quality in what we're doing. I don't think people would look at them and say, 'They don't care.' If anything at the moment we care too much and we've got to find a way of getting that right balance."

England are still top of Group C, and victory over Slovenia in Cologne on Tuesday will secure top spot. Qualification is of course the first thing they can achieve, but the ultimate aim of winning a maiden European Championship still looks a long way off.

One of Gallagher, Kobbie Mainoo and Adam Wharton must surely come into his thinking against Slovenia. The fact that he is having to consider such a dramatic rethink at all is of considerable concern.