Gareth Southgate is reportedly planning on playing Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield in England’s opening game at Euro 2024. Given the options available, it might just be the right decision.

Just a few days out from England’s opening Euro 2024 match, Gareth Southgate still has several selection issues to resolve.

England’s modern-day left-sided problem is at full-back and on the left side of central defence, where an untested combination of Kieran Trippier and Marc Guéhi appears likely to be Southgate’s solution. In attack, the main issue seems to be that England have too many options. These really are different times.

But the biggest question mark seems to be in central midfield, where Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham need a partner. Reports in the week leading up to the Serbia game in Gelsenkirchen suggest it could be Trent Alexander-Arnold who gets the nod.

That is because, for all of the attacking quality available to Southgate – and even the presence of a £100 million defensive midfielder in the shape of Rice – England still lack a ball-playing central midfielder who can provide the foundations for the rest of the team to flourish. There is a big gap in that part of the pitch for England, while the other tournament favourites boast players like Rodri, Toni Kroos and Jorginho.

One option would have been to play Rice as the number six, with Bellingham as an eight and then one of Phil Foden, Cole Palmer, or even the in-form Eberechi Eze as a number 10. That is a solution favoured by many fans who want Southgate to be a bit more adventurous with this supremely talented bunch of players.

But while the England manager has veered away from what he usually does in picking a squad full of his trusted lieutenants, instead going for form players, he was never likely to be so bold with his starting XI at a major international tournament. He will prefer to have another defensive player in central midfield to help protect the defence, which is England’s biggest weakness.

Also, playing another defensive midfielder allows Rice a bit more freedom to play in the role he did so brilliantly for Arsenal last season, and keeps Bellingham – one of the biggest goal threats at the tournament – higher up the pitch.

That leaves Alexander-Arnold (a right-back), Conor Gallagher (best position unclear), Kobbie Mainoo (19 years old) and Adam Wharton (one cap) as the options available to Southgate. It’s not exactly ideal.

The Liverpool man has been deemed the best option of the bunch, in part because none of the others have convinced in that role at this level.

Gallagher played more Premier League minutes (3,137) than any other Chelsea player last season, while William Saliba, James Tarkowski, Joachim Anderson and Max Kilman (all 38) were the only outfielders across the entire division to make more starts than him (37) – and they are all centre-backs.

And yet, it isn’t entirely clear where Gallagher’s best position is. His game time was divided up between a few different positions last season, with Mauricio Pochettino also unsure as to where best to use him.

Conor Gallagher positions played

He isn’t technical or press-resistant enough to play a ball-playing role in defensive midfield, and he isn’t creative enough to thrive as a number 10. He is an all-action, energetic midfielder, but he isn’t quite what Southgate needs.

Mainoo is the man for the job in many people’s eyes, but he was unconvincing in the friendly defeat to Iceland last week, and that display appears to have been a hammer blow to his chances of starting.

It may seem a tad unfair given the whole team underperformed, but Southgate might reasonably have been concerned at how ponderous the team were in possession against Iceland’s low block. They had 68.1% of the ball but managed just one shot on target, their lowest tally in a game since facing Scotland in June 2021.

england 0-1 iceland stats

There were a few misplaced passes from Mainoo that were noticeable for the wrong reasons. He completed just 74.1% of his passes in the final third, the second-lowest figure among England’s starters behind Foden (73.3%). That might suggest he was trying to make things happen, but he arguably should have been focusing his attentions more on finding the feet of England’s attackers rather than playing the killer ball.

Wharton is stylistically the best fit, but the tournament might just be coming too soon for him. He played only the last half hour of last week’s friendly against Bosnia, and then didn’t appear against Iceland. It would be a huge call for Southgate to hand the Crystal Palace midfielder his first England start and second cap at the Euros.

Which leaves us with Alexander-Arnold. This is the same Alexander-Arnold who has spent just 1% of his 25,078 minutes of game time in a Liverpool shirt in central midfield, and most those minutes have come in the cup competitions and the Europa League.

trent alexander-arnold positions played

Of course, his role as Liverpool right-back doesn’t involve him hugging the touchline, and he actually spends a great deal of time in central midfield, inverting off the flank to help create overloads in the centre of the pitch. His touch map from Premier League games in 2023-24 shows just how much he gets on the ball in central midfield for his club.

trent alexander-arnold touch zone map

What’s more, playing central midfield at international level should be easier than it is in the Premier League. National teams don’t get much time together pre-tournament, so there are fewer teams who press high up the pitch, and more lower blocks. That means central midfielders don’t come under the kind of pressure that they might at club level, so Alexander-Arnold’s forays into midfield from right-back for Liverpool and his few appearances in central midfield for England should have prepared him adequately to play international tournament football in midfield.

His long-ball ability could be crucial to moving compact opponents around and trying to create gaps in their structure. He ranked eighth of outfielders for accurate long balls (147) in the Premier League last season and third for switches of play (32). As England showed against Iceland, they can struggle against low blocks, and stretching the opposition laterally will be important with quick switches, particularly in helping to create situations where the likes of Bukayo Saka (or Anthony Gordon or Jarrod Bowen if they play) can isolate a defender.

The Liverpool man’s vision is another huge strength to his game, and he has an ability to find a pass through a stubborn opponent that few others in the England squad can match. Only six players – all attacking central midfielders or forwards – played more successful through balls in the Premier League last season than him (9).

trent alexander-arnold through balls

If England struggle to find a way through in open play, set-pieces would become all the more important, and Alexander-Arnold’s delivery at corners and shooting ability from free-kicks could be valuable additions to the team. At each of the three major tournaments with Southgate leading them, England have ranked first or joint first of every nation for goals from set-pieces (6 at WC 2018, 3 at Euro 2020, 2 at WC 2022).

With Kyle Walker too important defensively to England to be removed from the right-back slot, this is a solution that gets Alexander-Arnold into the team, will help get the most of others in midfield and attack, and keeps as many other important players in their best position (even if it means he doesn’t play in his best spot).

Just days out from the tournament, it’s very much a problem position for England, but Alexander-Arnold moving into central midfield is the best solution of the lot.

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