Gary Neville's England midfield blueprint: Where it's gone wrong and why Harry Winks is key

"The hardest thing in football is to beat a man with your back to play, but the very best players can do," explains Neville in latest podcast

Gary Neville takes an in-depth look at England's midfield issue and why the focus must be on Harry Winks going forward.

Gareth Southgate's England finished third in the inaugural Nations League, beating Switzerland on penalties following a goalless draw, having lost 3-1 against the Netherlands in Thursday's semi-final.

That defeat prompted questions to be asked of both England's defence and midfield, and here, speaking on The Gary Neville podcast, Neville addresses the issue, and gives his suggestions for a solution...

The problem

Though bad decisions on the ball hampered England in their 3-1 defeat by Netherlands on Thursday, Neville feels the midfield options were more of a problem.

"The midfield was not ideal against Netherlands. Declan Rice, Fabian Delph, Ross Barkley. That is not an international midfield, whichever way we look at it.

Image: England finished third in the inaugural Nations League

"I know everyone will look at the mistakes playing out from the back, but I think the midfield was the big problem in the game. It wasn't just a case of making bad decisions on the ball. We continuously found our defenders having that first look, that first touch, that second look, that second touch, that third look, that third touch. All of a sudden they're converged upon by Dutch players and they have to pass it back to Jordan Pickford.

"With the amount of times that happened in the first half, I would suspect Gareth Southgate said at half-time 'Stop passing back to the goalkeeper.' However the issue was not with the defenders, or the goalkeeper, it was in front of that.

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Currently we don't have enough players who can have that look over their shoulder, see where they are and beat a man. The hardest thing in football is to beat a man with your back to play, but the very best players can do so.
Gary Neville on England midfielders

"We know Fabian Delph does not get the ball on the half turn, that's not what he does. He's tidy on the ball, he's competent, he's got better on the ball in the last few years, but he's not somebody who is going to get the rhythm of the game moving.

"Declan Rice is a young player, who has shown a lot of promise at West Ham, but this is a different level all together for that young man, in terms of subtlety, accepting the ball, the nuances. He's got a lot to learn in terms of becoming a top international midfield player. He's got three or four years to develop into that.

Gareth Southgate consoles John Stones after England's defeat
Image: Southgate consoles John Stones after England's defeat by Netherlands on Thursday

"No other country in the top nations would put a player into that midfield so untested. We are still in a situation where if you play 10, 15, 20 games for a Premier League team, not even in the top half of the table, you are having to be catapulted into a situation, which in some ways is unfair."

Where teams have succeeded

Neville references the recent make-ups of France, Spain and Germany - all of whom have won major tournaments in the last decade - as the perfect examples of a successful midfield. Neville, who was also England coach between 2012 and 2016, suggests players such as Harry Winks and Phil Foden must be progressed.

"Look at the midfields who have been dominant in recent times in international football. The current French midfield - Matuidi, Pogba, Kante, with Griezmann dropping in. The Spanish midfield with Busquets, Iniesta, Thiago, Xavi. The German midfield of Kroos, Ozil, Schweinsteiger. They're all rhythm and tempo players, they control the pace of the match.

"Gareth doesn't have the players at his disposal. Harry Winks is a must moving forward; he was outstanding in the Champions League final, and looked a different level.

Harry Winks
Image: Players like Harry Winks must be progressed, says Neville

"It's quite simple for Gareth, he needs to progress the Winks and Fodens of this world.

"Currently we don't have enough players who can have that look over their shoulder, see where they are and beat a man. The hardest thing in football is to beat a man with your back to play, but the very best players can do so."

How it worked at United

Neville references how former Manchester United midfielders Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes set the tempo in some of their most successful years, despite not having the attributes you may always link to a typical English midfielder.

"Should Michael Carrick have been the first name on the teamsheet when Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard were around? Or a Paul Scholes? Carrick and Scholes played together in one of Manchester United's most successful period in their history - playing in three Champions League finals and winning four Premier League titles.

"No pace really, not great defenders, not really what you'd call box-to-box engines, but somehow they controlled every match. And they were playing against your Vieiras, Lampards, Makaleles, but Sir Alex put those two together.

Carrick and Scholes shared great success together at United
Image: Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes shared great success together at Manchester United

"Look at what Pep is doing - Gundogan, Silva and Foden or Gundogan, Silva and De Bruyne. There's not a tackle amongst them, but they all get to the ball quickly and win it back.

"The game has changed at international level. Controlling the game in midfield is more critical in international football than ever.

"We have a real issue, but I think these players are coming through. Jamie Redknapp said the other night that at Under-9s, 10s, 11s, 12s we are producing gifted and technical players."

Trent and Maguire outstanding

Despite the disappointment of not reaching the Nations League final, Neville says the performances of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Harry Maguire have been encouraging. Neville, a former England right-back, says Alexander-Arnold 'has the shirt' in that position for Gareth Southgate, and predicts Leicester will have a tough time keeping Maguire at the club.

"He holds the right-back shirt for England. I think Gareth Southgate has left the game on Sunday with his coaching staff and thought: 'I know who my right-back is for next season.'

Ricardo Rodriguez of Switzerland battles for possession with Trent Alexander-Arnold of England
Image: Trent Alexander-Arnold holds the right-back shirt for England, says Neville

"Kyle Walker is a fantastic right-back, as is Kieran Trippier, but I think Trent is exceptional and you have to invest in him.

"And if you think of the attributes of a centre-backs, he has them in abundance. Leicester fans won't thank me for this, but they're going to be under real pressure to keep him this summer.

"We talk about John Stones being good on the ball, I actually think Maguire is the equal of him on the ball. A big statement, maybe, as Stones is seen as the composed, ball-playing centre-back, but I think Maguire is just as good on the ball."

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