In tournaments gone by, a general concern has built-up around England’s lack of top-class creative midfield options. Although Ross Barkley, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli have acquitted themselves well in recent years, an emerging crop of youngsters are hitting top gear as we approach Euro 2020. In the midst of excellent domestic campaigns, the likes of James Maddison, Jack Grealish and Mason Mount will all be vying for a starting spot, leaving Gareth Southgate with a welcome dilemma as he decides on his main man for the England midfield.
The England Midfield Conundrum
Prospective entrants to the England midfield are unlikely to do so at the expense of Jordan Henderson. The 29-year-old Liverpool captain is hitting his peak as captain of the most fearsome English club side in recent memory. Having visibly matured in recent years, Henderson’s winning mentality, big-game pedigree and calming presence in the middle of the park serve to make him England’s undisputed midfield general in games to come.
Those chosen to flank Henderson will largely depend on the calibre of opponent. Declan Rice or Eric Dier, both centre-backs by trade, would bring solidity against those who can hurt England offensively. However, their respective lack of ability to venture forward and carve teams open render this approach slightly pessimistic.
In light of this, 24-year-old Harry Winks may be a more desirable compromise. Into his fourth season as a Tottenham Hotspur regular, Winks’ progressive passing from a deep midfield role has increasingly caught the eye of those in the top-flight. Rarely one to stray too far upfield, Winks provides an attractive middle ground through which England can remain defensively stable but provide adequate service for star players further forward. Whether Southgate fancies this midfield dynamic is another question, yet Winks provides a unique balance that earns him the recommendation.
Henderson and Winks’ defensive capabilities leave room for a third, more attacking option to complete the midfield trio. By my estimation, six young Englishmen have a shot at cementing their spot in time for summer.
Jose Mourinho’s shock appointment as Spurs manager has coincided with Dele Alli’s resurrection as a Premier League force. Twenty-three-year-old Alli has finally remembered where the net is, and his current form undoubtedly thrusts him back into Southgate’s thoughts. Alli’s lack of effectiveness in a midfield-three does, however, create cause for concern. Having earned his stripes as a distinct number ten at Spurs, Southgate would be well-advised to look elsewhere.
Fan-favourite Jack Grealish has been putting up impressive numbers whilst dragging Aston Villa through games this season. After contributing to 12 goals in 23 league games, talk has intensified about his long-awaited England call up. His raw talent is clear to see, but he remains a gamble. His recent Villa heroics have come largely from the wing, and his inexperience on the global stage suggests that the tournament may just come too soon for him.
Phil Foden, still just 19-years-old, is tipped for international greatness in years to come. However, his lack of game time for Manchester City means he is almost certain to miss out this time around. Elsewhere, Mason Mount has already impressed just six-months into his top-flight career. Southgate has been an outspoken admirer of Mount, although his recent plateau in form leaves the door ajar for more exciting prospects to step in. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has spent a significant period of time side-lined by injury. Despite this, when he has featured under Jurgen Klopp he has been sublime. As an exciting, industrious midfielder with bags of ability going forward, ‘The Ox’ stands a real chance of muscling his way in if he can build up a run of games during the back end of the season.
The Chosen One
James Maddison’s sole appearance as a 56th-minute substitute in November is a discredit to his form and ability. On face value, it appears that Southgate does not see Maddison as a long-term solution, but when you look at the facts there is no player more deserving of a step up in international responsibility.
Maddison has been a consistent performer since his Premier League bow 18-months ago. His ability to dribble, drive forward, exhibit a wide range of passing and find the top corner from long range gives him the ideal skill-set to give England’s midfield trio an attacking edge.
Having broadly matched Grealish for goals and assists this campaign, Maddison is ahead of all names mentioned in terms of Premier League chances created. The 23-year-old’s talent has allowed him to dazzle for a Leicester City side competing valiantly at the business end of the table. Furthermore, his advanced midfield position alongside Wilfred Ndidi and Youri Tielemens is similar to what would be demanded of him in Southgate’s preferred 4-3-3.
In the past, England managers have tended to stick with the tried and tested in major tournaments. In attacking midfield, England’s tried and tested contingent are simply not the best we have to offer. England’s stockpile of emerging talent in this regard gives Southgate plenty of choice. Ultimately, such varied options represent an effective weapon – it remains to be seen whether we can use them effectively.