In light of Mason Mount’s lack of form at the start of the 2022 World Cup and in the recent months for Chelsea, Gareth Southgate has since opted for an experienced pairing of Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson at the base of the midfield, pushing the fresh legs of 19-year-old Jude Bellingham further forward. This has worked like a charm, bringing out the best in each of Southgate’s midfield men, and allowing Bellingham to play some of his best football of his career thus far under the freedom of an advanced role. Here is why the balance of England’s midfield has been so successful in recent matches, and why the trio could be the key to success in unlocking France.
DEFENSIVE PRINCIPLESEmbed from Getty Images
Since the deployment of Henderson back into the midfield from the off, England are yet to concede a goal, and have even upped their attacking thrust. But it’s been the defensive work that has been oh so impressive as it usually is under the influence of Southgate, with even Bellingham speaking about how Henderson’s inclusion has intensified their press. Henderson simply knows where, when and how to adopt space on the field to limit the opposition. Most notably – when to amplify the intensity, and when to hold back. This is the great debate of any player looking to expand their pressing horizons, ensuring that they pressure not only with the right angles and body positioning, but at the right moments. We spoke about this at length in ‘When to press, and when not to press in football‘, and Henderson is one of the very best at the art – having existed for years in a high-tempo Champions League and Premier League winning Liverpool side.
Encouragingly, Southgate might be one of the best things to ever happen for Bellingham in his own pressing endeavours. Bellingham can often be caught doing too much for the Black & Yellows, trying to enact his intensity and bravado at every waking moment. This has been even more of a problem since Marco Reus’s early-season injury, and the principles around Bellingham’s pressing endeavours have sometimes meant that Salih Özcan has too much of a gap to cover in midfield. Dortmund have rarely tested him in the ’10’ position in light of Julian Brandt’s own brilliance, but Edin Terzic saw much success in his first season at the club via the use of a solid double pivot alongside the British youngster. He used Emre Can and Mahmoud Dahoud at the base of his midfield, allowing Bellingham to operate more freely up and down the right-half-spaces that he loves to exploit for the Black & Yellows.Embed from Getty Images
Gareth Southgate has achieved a similar rhythm within his own midfield stability, with Bellingham operating more to the left and Henderson on the right. Out of possession, that means that the team may press in more of a 4-2-3-1, but that a 4-1-4-1 can always occur if Henderson joins the press and matches up against a double-pivot.
The 4-1-4-1 shape can often be seen in the low-block in particular, to which Bellingham remains a critical component to breaking up possession. He’s a defensive warrior who wants to win the ball, and the benefit of having him win the ball above others, is that he has the explosiveness, fanciful footwork, drive and bravado to take five players on all by himself – and succeed in doing so. This is where the Dortmund man excelled against Senegal on his brilliant assist to the assist for Harry Kane’s goal, pouncing on a mistake from the Senegalese, and then exploding.Embed from Getty Images
Even if Bellingham’s not the man to win back possession, existing as a ’10’ means he can find himself with acres of space higher up the field to then contribute more positively to the counter-attack. Harry Kane’s inclinations will be to drift toward the ball, meaning Bellingham can counter-act that movement by racing in behind and pulling worried defenders with him, allow more space for the likes of Saka and Foden to enact brilliance on the ball.
Jordan Henderson also happens to be an active and proactive ball winner, and by the nature of his personality, wants to do everything he can to help his team win a football match. Throw in one of the Premier League’s strongest interceptors, Declan Rice, who would probably still manage to position himself to success in a dark cave full of bats, and you get one of the best midfield trios in the world.
From a defensive perspective, this works to inspire a relentless mentality that reverberates to all others in the side. Each of the three are underrated for what they offer out of possession, and the trio would make for an outstanding lineup in any of the world’s top pressing, highest intensity clubs. There’s maturity, leadership, exuberance and fight within each of them, even the 19-year-old.
ATTACKING PRINCIPLESEmbed from Getty Images
In possession is where things often get fun, and despite many calling them boring and defensive, the Three Lions have been quite fun indeed – putting up 12 goals in 4 games. Following the 0-0 draw to the U.S. where they just could not find connectivity through the thirds, England have fared much better with Bellingham as the ’10’. His intensity in helping to lead the press and the vigour from the top simply allows England to start their attacking moves closer to goal. Mount is a brilliant presser in his own right, but Bellingham has showcased himself to be just a different animal when it comes to winning back possession and putting his long legs in the way. Henderson and Rice help to provide the same gusto and steel in either joining him hand and hand, or holding rank in behind, where the team can then go on a collective counter-attack in quick succession.Embed from Getty Images
In fact, this is what we witnessed to a great degree against Senegal. England were brilliant and explosive on the break, consistently making the right passes at the right moments to break free of on-rushing defenders. We witnessed the likes of Shaw and Rice intercepting the ball in midfield and then immediately exploding forward like the switch of a light, and this is a frightening sign for any defender. Both are like freight trains when they drive at the defense, and this could be a brilliant asset to bring out against France if Southgate’s side are able to accumulate more positive counter-attacking moments. Henderson is happy to provide the cover in behind if Rice ventures forward, and the two midfield men have a great understanding about how to balance the individual talents of the other. We can expect Rice to hold more of a reserved role against Deschamps’ side, but Shaw could be key in driving forward from those half-spaces as England work smart attacking rotations.
Against Senegal, Bellingham dropped all the way into the left-back slot to pick up possession, which meant Shaw pushed wide, and Foden came in-field to receive. Shaw was more frequently used as a decoy pass in these moments to stretch the field and ensure a more successful route into Foden, but could be used more often out from the back to help break free of France’s defensive structures from the front. This was the only real way that they were able to bypass the States on Matchday 2, and greater rotation from the likes of Bellingham and Henderson will be key to ensuring greater progression through the thirds than they experienced that time out.
But we’d be remised to not mention Jordan Henderson’s own attacking output, which has been brilliant since his return to the eleven. As Bellingham likes to operate in the half-spaces and drift wide to receive the ball, more space can open up for Harry Kane to drop in deep, and the likes of Henderson himself to float up.
This is how the Liverpool legend even scored his brilliant opening goal against Senegal, floating up at the right moment to bang in Bellingham’s peach of a ball. Even at 32 years old, Henderson always has these surging runs in his locker simply by possessing that magnificent engine to get about the pitch like a thunderbolt (to no acclaim), and this will only come out more as Bellingham drifts wider to become the provider and creator; and Rice screens and sits like a defensive stalwart. Henderson even makes a habit of darting forward down the half-spaces himself, and in doing so, can create more space in the centre for others to attack the box. The variety and chaos that Henderson and Bellingham have added into the team alongside the cool and steady head of Rice has just been brilliant, and their attacking numbers have skyrocketed from that USA match as a direct result.
CONCLUDING THOUGHTSEmbed from Getty Images
When considering some of the best midfield threes throughout time, the ones that standout are always able to masterfully compliment one another’s strengths, whilst limiting weaknesses. England have achieved this balance in their midfield through the pace and power of Bellingham as a ’10’, Henderson as a shuttling ‘Box to Box’ presence that can organize and vocalize every action, and Rice as a ‘DLP’ who masterfully ‘Anchors’ the midfield by being in the right position at all times to allow the others to express themselves. This has been a stroke of genius from Southgate, and I for one, want to give him all the credit in the world for dropping one of his own favourite players, for the betterment of the team. Nothing against Mason Mount, but this midfield triad has been practically perfect the past two matches, and will be instrumental to unlocking France in the next round.
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So there it is! The balance in England’s midfield that Gareth Southgate has gotten oh so right. Be sure to check out more of our 2022 World Cup analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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