Why did England’s experience with Phil Foden and Mason Mount fail in the Hungary draw
Four years ago, Manchester Playing captivating brand football like never before in the Premier League that may never be matched again, not even by Pep Guardiola’s side. After a year adapting to his methods, his players won their first league title in style and glamour that ended with a three-point total.
At the heart of the 2017-2018 team were two players: Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva. Neither of them played as a traditional midfielder but as an “eight free-man”, and before she fell back on tactical jargon that no one had used before, that’s how De Bruyne himself described his role.
The main difference between the “free eight” and your primary midfielder was, as De Bruyne explained, “a lot of movement all around.” Much of that came in canals – or ‘half spaces’, to go back to geek talk – meaning De Bruyne and Silva played not centrally or wide but in gaps that opponents often find impossible to cover.
Using midfielders in this way is one of the many influences that Guardiola and City’s dominance of English football has had over the past few years. This effect can sometimes be felt in this England the side. In fact, there were five City players in the starting lineup against Hungary.
Gareth Southgate said in preparation for the World Cup qualifiers that he could not turn the team’s card without “committing a crime”. “These days” and so on. Except this time, there were no questions about why this or that player did not start. And for once, this starting lineup hasn’t been vilified in every corner of social media.
Defining players as “attacking” or “defensive” is a crude analysis at the best of times, but six attacking players in England consist of five players at their best in possession rather than off, rather than the usual four. Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Jack Grealish started as expected, while Mason Mount And Phil Foden combined in the midline.
With Calvin Phillips injured and Jordan Henderson among the benches, it was the end of the double defensive axis that many punters and pundits had been calling for throughout the year, even as the pairing laid the foundations for England’s first appearance in the Grand Slam final. Championship in 55 years.
Whether Southgate in this way finally raises the white flag and succumbs to the public clamor for a more offensive formation, only he knows. It might have been worth a try at some point, in his defence. The only problem? It does not work.
It was the first time in nine years that England failed to win a qualifying match at home, and the lack of control of the midfield, especially during the first half, was a major factor in that streak of 21 consecutive victories in a showdown against the climax.
Mount and Foden, who play on both sides of the right and left midfield respectively, did not play as a typical midfielder. They were mostly “free eights” as described, moving widely and in canals. As a result, England’s offensive was positionally more flexible, with Grealish often drifting central and to the right in search of space.
However, there was little fluency in the actual playing of England. Until injury time at the end of the first half, this new approach would have produced a massive one-shot aggregate on Hungary, which happened to be John Stones’ goal.
By contrast, Hungary could easily find space across the lines of England. Rice is a talent, already a mainstay in this team and at the age of 22 he could turn into the transformational midfield that many of the top clubs in the Premier League think he can, but his development at West Ham largely came as part of a pairing. . On his own, he struggled to contain Hungary’s attack.
This is understandable. The underappreciated secret of City’s “free eight” system was 33-year-old Fernandinho, whose uncanny ability to cover space enabled De Bruyne and the enterprising Silva to position themselves. As he got older, City evolved. Guardiola knows the squad demands are too much for most central midfielders.
It looks like Southgate may now have learned that lesson, too. The turn of the second half to 3-4-3 put an end to the “eight free” trial and not ahead of time. He said after the final whistle: “We have to go far and think and we should not judge things in one game and that experience.”
“From the start we were not very smart about our game, we gave the ball away, we were running things and for the first time in a long time we have to raise our hands today.”
England’s struggles at Wembley on Tuesday night should not reflect badly on Foden, Mount or Rice. Foden’s international future may still lie in midfield in a different squad. Mount assumed this role over the summer and played an important role in a cohesive tactical system. The importance of Rice is clear, as we mentioned.
With all that in mind, Southgate didn’t properly point the finger at individuals. “Collectively, we did not play at the level we needed,” he explained. He was right. This was a tactical experiment many requested but failed. It will not be rushed out again in a hurry.