“Infectious” was the word Gareth Southgate used and it may be one of the few times in the last couple of years when it has been deployed as a compliment. Conor Gallagher’s maiden England start was notable for his energy and irrepressibility.
He showed a fearlessness and an enthusiasm. He seemed to relish the chance to play at Wembley for the first time. The Crystal Palace Gallagher, the endearingly relentless runner, turned up in his country’s colours.
He secured an assist, setting up Luke Shaw’s equaliser in Saturday’s win over Switzerland. It was a reminder that Gallagher, with eight goals and three assists, is one of the Premier League’s most productive midfielders: outside the top seven clubs and strikers, only Leeds winger Raphinha has been directly involved in more goals.
Gallagher’s creativity is reflected in another respect. He is creating Southgate the right sort of problems. Given England’s strength in depth, the manager could have persisted with the largely youthful group of progressive players who populated his Euro 2020 squad. But if Southgate tends to reward fine form and is rarely slow to blood emerging talent, there is also a sense that Gallagher has forced his way into his plans.
It isn’t merely the blond mop and all-action style that makes him impossible to ignore. His outstanding performance when Palace beat Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in October was an illustration he can prosper against the best.
And yet, if Gallagher enhanced his chances of going to the World Cup, he was wise to sound cautious. “It would be amazing but it’s still a good few months away,” he said. “I just need to focus on my club football.” And his parent club is Chelsea. If they are shrouded in uncertainty, the formula that has brought Thomas Tuchel such success is 3-4-3. It calls for two central midfielders who provide a platform by operating largely behind the ball and who show more precision in possession than Gallagher.
With his off-the-ball running and willingness to get into the final third, he is scarcely a like-for-like alternative to Jorginho and N’Golo Kante. And while he has some similarities to Mason Mount, and could understudy a fellow Chelsea academy graduate in the England squad, he is less suited than Mount is to a role in Tuchel’s front three; in any case Chelsea have plenty of competition for places there.
When England play 3-4-3, as they did in the final of Euro 2020, there is no logical berth for Gallagher. When they play 3-5-2, as they did on Saturday, it offers echoes of the 2018 World Cup. Mount and Gallagher took over the duties Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli had then.
Yet Switzerland’s first-half superiority was a reminder of how Croatia beat England in the World Cup semi-final, outnumbering Jordan Henderson in a midfield when his two colleagues could get too far upfield. Their strengths could also be England’s weaknesses. Southgate described Mount and Gallagher as “good at pressing and attacking No 8s.” Pressing led to Shaw’s goal but Gallagher has tended to excel for Palace in formations where he has had two more defensive-minded midfielders alongside him.
Southgate said England’s system left them a bit “vulnerable” and if that was exacerbated by the presence of a new-look back three. But given the importance of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips in Euro 2020, it suggests England require a more solid duo against high-class opponents. If the shape that suits Gallagher best could be 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, giving him licence to show his running power, it could set up a competition, between him and the Southgate favourite Mount for a solitary spot.