Can Southgate find a midfield that works for laboured England?

Kane denied late winner as Denmark-England ends 0-0 (1:08)

Harry Kane has a match-winner saved off the line in stoppage time vs. Denmark. Watch Nations League on ESPN+. (1:08)

Just over an hour before kick-off at the Telia Parken Stadium, Gareth Southgate gently paced inside the centre circle of an otherwise empty pitch. It is difficult to know which was more ponderous: the England manager in those moments or the midfield performance that followed in a 0-0 draw in Copenhagen.

Southgate often likes to take in his surroundings when England play away from home but a brief period of splendid isolation would no doubt have been welcomed after a difficult few days in which he has had to deal with the fall-out of Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood's quarantine breach. The 50-year-old was hopeful his team's performance tonight would shift the focus back to football again and it did, but not in the way he would like.

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England's search for the right midfield balance continues and the evidence of the past four days is that Southgate is no closer to solving a perennial problem that has undermined tournament campaigns for years. To be blunt, they still do not possess a player capable of consistently injecting creativity and tempo from central midfield.

Croatia's Luka Modric consigned England to death by a thousand passes at the 2018 World Cup, Frenkie de Jong did something similar for the Netherlands in last summer's Nations League semi-finals. It is not Southgate's fault that the English system is yet to produce a midfield metronome in that mould but it is his job to find alternative solutions and the hope is he would have made more progress by now in that endeavour than this double-header suggests.

Southgate's decision to play a back three for the first time in almost exactly two years as part of a 3-4-3 formation failed to shake England from their creative slumber. England produced four shots on target in a lacklustre display against Iceland last Saturday with Declan Rice, Foden and James Ward-Prowse flattering to deceive.

A central midfield pairing here of Rice and debutant Kalvin Phillips was even less inspiring. Phillips was tidy enough but with England insufficiently shrewd in possession to create overload opportunities on either flank, the front three of Harry Kane, Jadon Sancho and Raheem Sterling were left far too isolated, particularly in the first half.

Sancho's was substituted on the hour mark for Mason Mount, ending an underwhelming international break for a player who has rarely been out of the headlines this summer. The 20-year-old is clearly a hugely promising talent and the timing of these Nations League matches do not lend themselves to optimum performance but it was nevertheless intriguing that he failed to make an impact against two conservative opponents similar to those Manchester United have struggled to break down under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Sancho could yet be a world-beater and will almost certainly improve but United's reticence to meet Borussia Dortmund's £100 million asking price found justification here. The winger himself might argue, legitimately so, that a lack of supply made his task all the more difficult and so we come back to the midfield issue. Southgate attempted to rectify the problem by playing Mount in a central midfield two - something Southgate claimed the 21-year had "not done in first-team football" -- before finally introducing Jack Grealish with 14 minutes to go.

England struggled to press with any consistency and continued to look uncomfortable in this shape throughout. There is still time to work on formations, of course, and Southgate would no doubt point to the success England enjoyed in Russia when deployed in a 3-5-2 shape. However, he espoused the belief after that tournament that a back three was merely a means to an end, born of a desire to protect a fragile team learning to express themselves.

A more expansive 4-3-3 shape has seen England excite and enthrall since then and if anything, Southgate was too cautious here. Denmark are a competent side with Christian Eriksen capable of causing any side problems but three centre-backs and two defensive-minded central midfielders felt like overkill in the circumstances.

England switched to 4-3-3 after the last World Cup because Southgate felt his defenders did not need as much protection and he wanted to pursue a more front-foot approach. They need to get back to that.

Southgate countered accusations of underperformance by listing the admittedly extraordinary circumstances these games were played in given the COVID-19 requirements, Foden and Greenwood's ill-discipline and Harry Maguire's saga in Greece when the squad was announced.

"I was determined we wouldn't leave here without something," he said. "We weren't going to come out here and be loose and frivolous and fold because of everything else that has been going on. We were a strong team of men, we needed that. To get through the two games the way the players have at this stage of the season... we shouldn't really have been playing, frankly. The situation with the clubs means it is not ideal for any of the players but the game went ahead and really we have to praise the effort and the endeavour of the players.

"It has been mayhem, frankly, for three weeks and two clean sheets, solid performances and a strong focus on playing is a great credit to the players who are here."

It is reasonable to expect England will improve from here as the team for next summer's finals continues to emerge. Three of Sterling, Kane, Sancho and Marcus Rashford make England's best XI. Conor Coady was solid at centre-back on his debut and both he and Eric Dier will hope to challenge Joe Gomez as the preferred partner for Harry Maguire. But the composition of midfield is anyone's guess at this stage.

Nobody really advanced their case this month, leaving the absent pack of Harry Winks, Ross Barkley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Maddison all scrambling with Rice, Phillips and Mount to form an effective midfield with Jordan Henderson.

Denmark had the better of the second-half chances, Eriksen blazing over late on, before Kane almost won it in stoppage time, rounding Kasper Schmeichel only for Mathias Jorgensen to clear the ball off the line. It was the second shot on target England managed all night.

Southgate, the man always in the middle, has plenty to ponder.