England is finally producing a new breed of exciting midfielders

  • Alex Hess

It is almost exactly 11 years since English football’s day of reckoning: the night the vaunted ‘golden generation’ took on a slick-passing Croatia side at Wembley, were given the runaround on their own turf and a team that had been touted for global domination were consigned to watching the European Championship from their sofas.

In hindsight, it was a fateful summer. Two days after a ball-hungry Spain ran out tournament winners in Vienna, Pep Guardiola was appointed manager of Barcelona, and football’s possession obsession was quickly cranked up to new heights.

We all know what happened next – Guardiola’s band of velvet-booted imps went some way to redefining elite-level football as we know it – but what it meant for England was a belated period of introspection.

The realisation suddenly dawned that English players – and the midfielders in particular – were not quite as good as we’d thought. That most had far less brains than brawn and that even the very best of them, namely Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, were the sort who delivered in moments of booming spectacle rather than sustained shrewdness and subtlety.

A period of intense self-examination followed: suddenly, English pundits were lauding Xabi Alonso and Claude Makelele as their sides’ “real” stars, grafters like Scott Parker were deemed unfashionable and England’s sidelining of Paul Scholes (who by his own admittance rarely played well for his country) was frowningly revised as symptomatic of everything wrong with the national game.

Having complacently ignored its failings for decades, England was suddenly starkly aware of them: the gormless obsession with blood, sweat and tears. Too much graft, too little craft.

That was 10 years ago, and in the leadup to last summer’s World Cup, you could be forgiven for thinking that little had changed. In the days before the squad was named, the main debate centred around whether Jonjo Shelvey – another loping midfielder in the muck-and-bruises mould – could solve the guile shortage.

After Southgate named his 23, the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor remarked that “England still hasn’t solved the problem of finding a natural playmaker, someone to take care of the ball the old-fashioned way”.

And, as well as England did in making it to the semi-finals, watching them being given the runaround in Moscow by a slick-passing Croatia side was a grim antidote to the national euphoria that had come before: for all the talk of progress, this was 2008 all over again.

Four months on, an unmistakable Englishness still defines Southgate’s midfield options: Jesse Lingard, Jordan Henderson and Fabian Delph are hard runners. Eric Dier, Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are all six-foot muscle men. So far, so British. Yet look a little closer and you’ll see that the picture is shifting.

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The first clue is the inclusion of Harry Winks, who looks to have finally overcome a raft of niggling injuries to take his place as the key figure in Mauricio Pochettino’s uber-modern midfield: a player who doesn’t so much pass the ball as lend it out, and one blessed with an instinctive appreciation of how rhythmic possession trumps the Hollywood ball.

Then there’s Jadon Sancho, the forward reaping the benefits of a continental education at Dortmund, where he has spent the season so far as Germany’s own King Midas (current tally: five goals and eight assists in 859 minutes).

More promise lies in the under-21s selection. Lewis Cook, a quietly elegant midfield metronome, has impressed hugely during Bournemouth’s freewheeling start to the season. Phil Foden, though given sporadic game time at Manchester City so far, has done little to dispel his reputation as an elite playmaker-in-waiting.

Then there’s those not involved: Mason Mount and James Maddison are currently injured having been picked by Southgate last time, the former having caught the eye after stepping down to the Championship, the latter having enjoyed a glittering start to his Premier League career after moving the opposite way.

Both are slight, skilful playmakers. Both are proof that England’s second tier is no longer a place where diminutive ball-players will be bullied into submission. It’s not just English players that are transforming, it’s the nature of the football itself.

Morgan Gibbs-White is not in the frame and won’t be for some time, but Southgate will be monitoring him closely: he has made a real impression with his cameos for Wolves, an elusive, quick-thinking creative presence. His fellow member of last year’s World Cup-winning Under-17 squad, Callum Hudson-Odoi, is now on the fringes of the Chelsea setup.

And none of this is to mention Dele Alli, a player already firmly in the heart of Southgate’s set-up and one who is unmistakably a technician first and an athlete second, notable for a distinctly un-English sense of wit and spontaneity. Alli, bizarre as it may sound, is also the youngest midfielder in Southgate’s current squad.

It goes without saying that these are wildly different players: some are tricky forwards, some are sitting midfielders. Some are passers, some are dribblers. Some will make it to the top, some won’t. But nine midfielders between the ages of 18 and 22, all canny ball-players and only one of them taller than six foot? Something is changing here.

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Across the board, a pattern is emerging: England’s coming generation of midfielders features a plethora of smart, squat, velvet-booted inventors – exactly the sort of player this country is famous for not producing, exactly the sort whose absence has defined the national team’s tournament exits for two decades.

The point is not that England’s problems have all been solved, but that they are at least being addressed. And the promising early signs stretch beyond the midfield, too: at the back, John Stones and Joe Gomez are two of the more coolly assured centre-backs England has produced in some time; in attack, the rigid touchline-shuttler model of winger that has prescribed England’s options on the flanks for as long as memory serves has given way to a more elusive, three-dimensional breed of wide-men embodied by Raheem Sterling.

In December 2014, the FA launched its ‘England DNA’ blueprint, with the aim of creating a production line of players who “intelligently dominate possession selecting the right moments to progress the play and penetrate the opposition”.

At the time, we cringed at the corporate-speak and yawned at yet another doomed root-and-branch review. Four years on, England are reigning holders of the under-20 and under-17 World Cups.

They’ve won the Euros at under-19s level and finished as runners-up, losing on penalties, at under-17s level. All that within the past 18 months. The England DNA: Is it too early to say that it’s… working?

Perhaps not. And, bearing in mind the age of the players involved, it’s worth noting how much time remains for them to get a whole lot better.

After all, Xavi Hernandez did not become the epochal puppeteer we now remember him as until midway through his 20s. Xabi Alonso’s blooming at Liverpool came at a similar age.

Andrea Pirlo and Bastian Schweinsteiger both passed their countries to World Cup triumphs having spent the first section of their careers as unremarkable wingers.

That sort of glory, it’s fair to say, is still some way off. For now, it’s best to simply sit back and enjoy the process. First up, the USA. Then on Sunday, just for old times’ sake, a slick-passing Croatia side come to Wembley – and who knows, England’s current crop might even hold their own this time.

But whatever you do, just don’t call them a golden generation.

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