International Soccer

An England therapy session – come and talk yourself into Conor Gallagher’s new starting role

It wouldn’t be a major tournament for England without a little bit of ‘WHY THE HELL IS X PLAYING’ turbulence, would it?

The Three Lions are through to the knockout stages of Euro 2024 with a game to spare. To ensure they finish as winners of Group C, a win will likely be required in Tuesday’s showdown with Slovenia.

But as has so often been the case with this version of the England men’s national team, a dark grey cloud has emerged over the camp after two rounds of fixtures.

Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Denmark fanned the flames of new culture war. Why aren’t England more upbeat? Why can’t the team just accept fair criticism? Why is right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold still playing as a central midfielder?

Well, at least Gareth Southgate seems to have learned the error of his ways with that last point, having already admitted that this was an ‘experiment’.

Alexander-Arnold will be dropped to the bench for England’s final group game, with Conor Gallagher in line to take his place. It’s a move that served the Three Lions well midway through the second half of their opening win against Serbia, but looked a little more dangerous versus Denmark.

Trent Alexander-Arnold, Conor Gallagher

Gallagher has twice replaced Alexander-Arnold this tournament / Matthias Hangst/GettyImages

England’s problems so far this tournament have stemmed from the lack of on-ball control they’ve managed to assert, while they have sunk too deep when out of possession. An aggressive and pressing midfielder like Gallagher solves one of those issues, but not both.

By utilising Alexander-Arnold in midfield, England ceded the natural control they have usually held in recent tournaments in favour of a more direct approach. But the parts didn’t align correctly – too many ahead of Alexander-Arnold wanted the ball to feet rather than running beyond, while they seemingly didn’t have the legs to even keep up with this train of thought.

Gallagher is a one-man pressing machine and a high-energy midfielder who has led by example at Chelsea. For his technical flaws, he brings plenty of invaluable intangibles to the table.

This isn’t lost on his teammates or managers. By the end of the 2023/24 season, Mauricio Pochettino was fed up of having to explain ad nauseam how important Gallagher was to his Stamford Bridge setup, eventually just retorting to a simple: “Look how many games he’s played.” By the end of the campaign, that number was 50, including 30 as captain.

Declan Rice, who will partner Gallagher in midfield on Tuesday, told BBC Radio 5 Live: “I have played with him at academy level, played against him at [Crystal] Palace and Chelsea. He is a teammate I would love to have on my team, he works his socks off, you feel so secure and safe in there with him.

“I think he has surprised so many people this year with his ability on the ball, how he breaks forward with it, how he gets into the box, scores goals.

“I think he is a really positive player and he has come on so much over the past few years as well, you can really see that within himself how confident he is.

“Every time I get to play with Con, it hasn’t been much, I have really enjoyed it because I know him really well as a guy, I know his family really well and he is a lovely boy and it is another great chance to stamp our mark.”

Of course, Rice – a charismatic orator who consumes football as if it were a holy elixir – is obliged to say such niceties about teammates, but he spoke clear truths about Gallagher that are being ignored.

Perhaps the ideal partner for Rice in this England system is a more experienced version of Adam Wharton or Kobbie Mainoo. Gallagher is a very different profile, but Southgate is calling upon a player with the necessary scars of battle and inherent sense of responsibility – this isn’t throwing s**t against the wall just to see what sticks.

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