For the first time in years, England will go into a World Cup without a genuine top quality central midfielder in their ranks. . There has been Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes, Robson; now there is Henderson and...? With the World Cup only 8 months away, who can we expect to see lining up centrally in Russia next summer?
Jordan Henderson: The Liverpool captain is a solid Premier League player, but he just doesn’t have the quality to be the main man in England’s midfield. He is a good foil for other players, willing to do the dirty work and let the flair players shine, but he lacks that little extra bit of class and finesse that separates the good from the truly great. He has, however, emerged as a leader in the dressing room, and if fit will certainly be on the plane to Russia.
Dele Alli: Arguably the most exciting of the English talents at the moment behind Lord Harry, Alli is a world class player in the making; he is one of those players who can turn a game in an instant. Over the years, England have occasionally shied away from instinctive, flair players like Alli, opting instead to build the team around mass produced, solid, effective, route-one kind of footballers. It is crazy to think that the likes of Matt Le Tissier only had a handful of caps, while Scholes was often shafted out to left midfield. Luckily for Alli, the English game has moved on and he is in a generation that appreciates and recognizes skill and flair over grit and strength. He might play just off Kane in a #10 role, slightly further forward than a classic central midfielder, and hopefully he can finally bring some of his footballing charm to the international stage.
Eric Dier: Dier has been at the heart of Pochettino’s Spurs revolution and has put in some very good performances for England as well. Like Henderson, Dier is a no-nonsense kind of midfielder; he’ll hold his position and crunch into tackles, but don’t expect him to provide the creative spark or defense splitting pass going forward. If he keeps up his good form for Spurs, he could well be expected to slot in alongside Henderson behind Dele Alli next June.
Adam Lallana: The Liverpool man is a great player to have in the squad, as he can play LW, RW, at 10, or at 8. He is also a player who can make an impact from the bench. He hasn’t featured for Liverpool much this season because of a long-term injury, but is due back after this international break. If he can get back into the Liverpool team and find the same form that led him to being almost the first name on Klopp’s team sheet at times last season, he will be heading to Russia without a doubt.
Fabian Delph: If only he could keep fit! I loved Delph at Aston Villa. He dragged them single-handedly into the FA Cup final, with his brave performance in their win against Liverpool in the semi. He got his big move to Manchester City after that, but has been disappointingly injured for the majority of the time since. However, he is enjoying a run in the side — albeit at left back — at the moment, and his energy, versatility and experience would make him a valuable asset to an England team desperately in need of those 3 things at the moment.
Harry Winks: Plenty has been written about Winks’ recent performances for Spurs against the likes of Kroos and Modric, and he deserves all the praise that has come his way. He looked so assured and unfazed when facing arguably the two best midfielders in the world, completely holding his own. If he can stay fit and continue to keep Dembele and Wanyama out of the Spurs team, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him maybe even pushing for a starting England spot next summer.
Danny Drinkwater: Drinkwater’s summer move to Chelsea before a World Cup year surprised me. Perhaps he looked at N’Golo Kante last season and thought, “That should’ve been me. I should have taken my move last summer.” The big difference between the two, though, is that Kante would get into almost every team in the world and Drinkwater wouldn’t get anywhere near most of them. He was a star at Leicester, and was a guaranteed starter every week; at Chelsea, I can’t see him featuring more than in the odd cup game — a Steve Sidwell or Scott Parker 3.0. Without playing regularly, he won’t push for a spot in the England squad, despite his undoubted calmness and metronomic quality on the ball.
Jack Cork: Jack Cork has been crucial to Burnley’s great start to the season; he’s the classic “engine room” kind of player, and has taken his game to another level. If he exerts himself well in the English friendlies, he is the type of player Southgate seems to like so he could very well be a surprise inclusion in next summer’s World Cup squad.
Tom Davies: The Everton man burst onto the scene last year with a scintillating man-of-the-match performance against Guardiola’s City. Calm in possession and with a real eye for a pass, Davies is one I am excited to see develop over the next few years. This World Cup may come just a little too soon for him, but I fully expect him to be part of the full England set up within the next year or so.
James Ward-Prowse: He is perhaps the best set piece deliverer England has produced since David Beckham, but we have yet to see JWP deliver much else. He is definitely one to watch, but a player of his undoubted technical ability should be hitting much higher numbers in terms of goals and assists. If he can have a strong rest of the season, he could sneak on the plane to Russia, but he has several players ahead of him in the pecking order right now.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek: I keep waiting for Loftus-Cheek to have the break out season he definitely has deep down inside him somewhere. He has all the attributes to be exactly the type of midfielder that England have been crying out for for years — pace, power, drive, height, and a touch of flair. Another one who has been unlucky with injuries, here’s hoping that Loftus-Cheek can make the most of playing Premier League football week in week out while on loan at Crystal Palace this season and make a late push for the England squad. Southgate is taking notice, too, with Loftus-Cheek’s inclusion in the friendlies.
Phil Foden: Why the hell not? Although he’d be more likely to rival Dele Alli and Adam Lallana for a starting #10 position, he could occupy that slightly deeper lying playmaker role as well. His performances for England in their recent victorious U17 World Cup campaign were nothing short of spectacular, and if Guardiola is a fan then we can be too.
All in all, there are lots of options for Gareth Southgate to mull over in the coming months. And despite this midfield dilemma, for the first in a while, England do have genuine quality in other areas of the pitch; they have a world class forward in Harry Kane, quick, dynamic and in-form wide players in Rashford and Sterling, and a relatively solid back line as long as Gary Cahill and his own goals remain on the bench. What Southgate should avoid is jamming as many big name players into a line-up as possible, which doesn’t allow any of them to shine (see Hodgson’s Euro 2016 campaign, Eriksson’s Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006 campaigns). He should pick a central midfield partnership who can compliment each other, win the ball quickly, and get it to the feet of the more talented players ahead of them. Southgate is the first manager in recent memory who doesn’t seem to mind ruffling any senior players’ feathers (RIP Wayne Rooney’s international career 2003-2016), and in a weird way he is lucky he doesn’t have the problem of trying to figure out how to get Lampard, Gerrard, and Scholes into the same team at the same time. So maybe just maybe that means he’ll be able to pick a twosome or threesome that actually works together, and maybe just maybe England’s central midfield dilemma could actually be a blessing in disguise.