How did England go from ‘outstanding’ midfield three to Conor sodding Gallagher in 18 months?

Matt Stead
Conor Gallagher gestures towards the referee during Denmark v England
Conor Gallagher gestures towards the referee during Denmark v England

England went from an “outstanding” midfield trio in qualifying to grabbing a Conor Gallagher safety blanket during Euro 2024. Gareth Southgate has messed up.

Trent Alexander-Arnold will be dropped for England’s final group game against Slovenia after that miserable team performance in the Denmark draw. Quite how it has come to this is a damning mystery.

These are the games which followed England’s exit at the 2022 World Cup, with the midfield succession plan in the 18 months since ultimately boiling down to ‘we need more runners’. That Phil Foden quote is a doozy.


Italy (March 2023, 2-1 win)
The midfield
: Rice sitting in a 4-3-3 with Phillips and Bellingham

‘Bellingham looks like the missing piece of the England jigsaw, the world-class midfielder which allows them to get three men in the middle without looking frail,’ wrote Rob Draper in the Daily Mail. Jacob Steinberg of The Guardian enjoyed the ‘easy balance’ to that midfield.


Ukraine (March 2023, 2-0 win)
The midfield: Rice sitting in a 4-3-3 with Henderson and Bellingham

“The counter pressure to win things back really quickly with those three midfield players in particular was outstanding,” said Southgate himself. Richard Jolly wrote in the Independent about how Bellingham in particular ‘has facilitated the shift to a three-man midfield with his ability to be both No 8 and No 10. In turn, that has stopped England being so passive.’


Malta (June 2023, 4-0 win)
The midfield: Rice sitting in a 4-3-3 with Alexander-Arnold and Henderson

“It feels natural, I will say that. It’s somewhere I can see myself playing,” said Alexander-Arnold, while Southgate added: “I’ve got no questions in my head that he can do it. It’s just learning some nuances of the role. Without the ball especially it’s very different for him. He showed exactly what he could be capable of and he gives us something different to our other midfielders.”

For the Independent, Miguel Delaney noted that it was the sort of game ‘where everyone could try things, as the circumstances led to some experimentation’. How damning that just over a year later, Southgate admitted to still carrying those tests out in the middle of a major tournament.


North Macedonia (June 2023, 7-0 win)
The midfield
: Rice sitting in a 4-3-3 with Alexander-Arnold and Henderson

“I think he has given them something in the last couple of games,” Jamie Carragher said of Alexander-Arnold. “Yes, the opposition is not the type of opposition that England will be playing next summer when they’re trying to win the European Championships. But for England, that’s the best position for him because we know Gareth Southgate would not put him in at right-back because of the competition there. Right now, Jude Bellingham, Declan Rice, and Trent would be that midfield three, maybe a Mason Mount could come into the equation there when he gets back fit.”

Southgate praised the Liverpool player’s pressing in particular and said: “I didn’t even think twice about starting him in there. It might give us something completely different. The vision and the passing range and the connection with Bukayo for his second goal.”


Ukraine (September 2023, 1-1 draw)
The midfield: Rice sitting in a 4-3-3 with Henderson and Bellingham

An absolutely sensational Southgate quote is all we need here after the stodgiest of England displays in the middle, with 24-minute substitute Phil Foden held up as a possible solution by many:

“He doesn’t [play centrally] for his club. Presumably there is a reason for that. It depends on the level of the game. In the middle of the park, everyone wants to talk about the ‘with the ball’ but there is a lot of detail without the ball. You have to be spot on with pressing angles, your responsibilities and if you don’t, you don’t get the flow of the game. You’d have to speak to Pep, who is the best coach in the world, who plays him from wide. He’s always got the freedom to drift if we play him wide. That’s important.”

In the context of the Alexander-Arnold central “experiment”, there are no notes.


Scotland (September 2023, 3-1 win)
The midfield: Rice and Phillips in a 4-2-3-1, with Bellingham advanced

“I don’t think England need to deploy two holding midfielders because Bellingham has the energy and athleticism to get involved further up the field and then get himself back in the defensive midfield shape very quickly when it breaks down. Declan Rice can fill the space behind him when he goes,” said Graeme Souness of a player who “already looks the finished article”.


Australia (October 2023, 1-0 win)
The midfield: Henderson and Gallagher in a 4-2-3-1, with Maddison advanced

“At the moment you’d be a brave man to leave either of those two out but who plays in there with them?” Southgate asked, referring to the established spine of Rice and Bellingham when discussing their unknown third wheel. Alexander-Arnold was the prevalent idea as “a No.8 that represents a different option for us with his range of passing” who “we want to keep looking at as much as we can”.


Italy (October 2023, 3-1 win)
The midfield
: Phillips and Rice in a 4-2-3-1, with Bellingham advanced

‘Beyond this midfield structure better suiting Southgate’s desire for control and defensive possession, it clearly gets the best out of Bellingham, which in turn helps get the best out of Kane,’ wrote Liam Tharme of The Athletic of an impressive win.

‘Alexander-Arnold deserves to team up with Rice and Bellingham, and what a formidable midfield trio that would be, albeit lacking the right defensive balance for Southgate. So Phillips or Henderson will partner Rice behind Bellingham,’ wrote Henry Winter in The Times. Oh, sweet summer child.


Malta (November 2023, 2-0 win)
The midfield: Henderson sitting in a 4-3-3 with Alexander-Arnold and Gallagher

‘What did we really learn about the Anfield star’s true capabilities of holding down a long-term role in England’s midfield on Friday night?’ asked Sami Mokbel as a press pack which had championed the Alexander-Arnold central cause for some time started to turn.


North Macedonia (November 2023, 1-1 draw)
The midfield
: Alexander-Arnold and Rice in a 4-2-3-1, with Foden advanced

‘At the first real sign of pressure in the role he hopes to be selected in for Euro 2024 he showed why at his current level of schooling he probably shouldn’t make the squad for Germany. He played like the novice he is. He was slow in possession, looked as though he didn’t know where he was supposed to be out of it, and provided very little support for Declan Rice when North Macedonia broke in numbers. On this showing Alexander-Arnold’s evolution should not continue into a major tournament.’ Will Ford reckoned the Liverpool man shrank at the first sign of midfield pressure for England.

“There are lots of players to keep track of, because in this batch of games, Trent has again done an excellent job in midfield, has used the ball really well and has done really well,” Southgate said. Nothing wrong with a slight difference in opinion.


Brazil (March 2024, 1-0 defeat)
The midfield: Gallagher and Rice in a 4-2-3-1, with Bellingham advanced

After the first look at England’s reported plan for Slovenia, Jonathan Liew wrote in the Guardian that Gallagher ‘feels a slightly incongruent fit in an attack full of high-grade cutting edges’ as he is ‘not quite good enough in possession to function as a deep playmaker, not good enough at reading and anticipating to function as a holder’.

Southgate acknowledged the Chelsea player’s change of role, referencing “a slightly different position, having to play a bit deeper”. He added that England “managed to play through the pressure well” and “Declan was outstanding with and without the ball”. He also admitted “we’re short of a few. We don’t have a lot of midfield players who play as sixes in the league. That’s why we brought Kobbie in.”


Belgium (March 2024, 2-2 draw)
The midfield: Mainoo and Rice in a 4-2-3-1, with Bellingham advanced

‘A superb first start by Kobbie Mainoo for England. He’s not only played himself into the squad for the Euros but quite possibly the starting lineup. Well played young man,’ said Gary Lineker, who was not the only one left impressed by the teenager’s first international start.

Tickers reckoned ‘that midfield had a life and a purpose and a drive that it hasn’t always,’ and felt Mainoo ‘might, just might, be the missing piece in the midfield puzzle’.

“He was very calm, received well under pressure and he was strong. We were a little bit more open playing that way but the benefits with the ball were clear to see,” said Southgate. The “we were a little bit more open playing that way” comment was revealing and damning for the future of that particular midfield pair.


Bosnia (June 2024, 3-0 win)
The midfield
: Alexander-Arnold and Gallagher in a 4-2-3-1, with Palmer advanced

‘There were plenty of positives for Gareth Southgate from Monday’s win over Bosnia and Herzegovina, but you wonder if he is any closer to solving his biggest dilemma – the identity of England’s third midfielder,’ Dan Kilpatrick pondered in the Evening Standard.

Southgate, by his own admission, was still wrestling with the problem. “None of these players can do everything, so you are trying to work out the right balance,” he said. “Declan is going to be in there, so what is the [best] balance with him?”

The manager also praised “real maturity” from Gallagher and the “pretty unflappable” nature of second-half substitute debutant Wharton.


Iceland (June 2024, 1-0 defeat)
The midfield: Rice and Mainoo in a 4-2-3-1, with Foden advanced

“Serbia are going to play deep and we’re going to need to find a way to cut them open, so I can see why Trent works in this particular match. As the tournament moves on, I don’t think it will remain that way. I think other players will come into the fold,” were the prescient words of Gary Neville.

“It wasn’t about individuals; the team wasn’t good enough,” said Southgate. And he was right because it was rotten and hasn’t been much better since.

👉 England: Trent dropped, Gordon to start as ideal XI v Slovenia named
👉 Perfect England midfielder is ‘sitting at home’ as 11km Wharton lacks ‘legs’