England's big problem yet to be solved after Alexander-Arnold's midfield audition

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany (AP) — England’s big problem is yet to be solved.

Finding the right balance in central midfield has been a long-standing issue for Gareth Southgate in his eight years as England coach, so he went for something out of left-field for the European Championship.

For the team’s group opener against Serbia on Sunday, Southgate chose to play Trent Alexander-Arnold — a right back for Liverpool — as Declan Rice’s partner in the middle of midfield.

Southgate, hardly regarded as a gambler, acknowledged there was “an element of the unknown” to playing Alexander-Arnold out of position and it was his most scrutinized call for the British media that still appears divided over the coach’s tactical acumen.

After Alexander-Arnold was removed in the 69th minute after a ho-hum display in England’s 1-0 win, it might be back to the drawing board.

Firstly, the positives.

Alexander-Arnold, who is known for his vision and passing range, produced a couple of impressive long passes to propel England — notably a raking ball toward Bukayo Saka on the right early in the second half.

There was a fine interception midway through the first half to launch an attack that ended with Kyle Walker lifting a deft shot wide. After seeing a powerful shot from the edge of area beaten away, “TAA” — as he is often referred — set up Jude Bellingham for a chance that was spurned.

Unfortunately, there was plenty that didn’t quite go right for Alexander-Arnold — and Southgate.

He twice lost possession sloppily in his own half, allowing Serbia to counter. A couple of aimless passes went astray, too, like one from 40 meters to Harry Kane that went straight to Serbia’s goalkeeper just when England needed to keep the ball in a tough spell around the hour mark.

Perhaps most worryingly, though, was his positioning, especially in the second half, that contributed to England dropping deeper and deeper as Serbia gradually came back into the game.

It felt as if Rice and Alexander-Arnold didn't really work as a partnership. That, if England was to play an elite European team, this new combination would be exposed, like Southgate’s team can be in the biggest games against top-class midfields.

That was the case against Croatia in the World Cup semifinals in 2018, against Italy in the final of Euro 2020, and to a lesser extent against France in the World Cup quarterfinals in 2022. All ended in defeat for England.

Conor Gallagher replaced Alexander-Arnold, who was embraced by Southgate, and may be given the nod against Denmark on Thursday. Kobbie Mainoo and Adam Wharton are England’s other options alongside Rice, who is a certain starter and one of England’s most important and reliable players.

Wayne Rooney, the former England captain, was among those warning Southgate against playing Alexander-Arnold in this unfamiliar role that he barely plays for Liverpool.

“Defensively, he’s all over the place,” Rooney said in a recent episode of “The Overlap” podcast. “He can’t defend. I wouldn’t have him anywhere near the middle of the pitch.”

Another pundit, former Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane, has predicted Alexander-Arnold would get “found out” playing midfield against the big teams at the Euros.

One match against Serbia hasn’t given a definitive answer, but Southgate may look around for other solutions to what remains England's outstanding concern.


AP Euro 2024:

Steve Douglas, The Associated Press