Central Midfielders: Who Will Go

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Gareth Southgate is a man of no frills. The England manager does things the simple way and, living up to that, has announced he will not name a provisional World Cup squad. He is going straight to a 23-man squad, expected to appear shortly after the end of the Premier League season, and well inside the FIFA deadline.

The past six months for England fans have been spent rating, debating and, often, slating England’s goalkeeping options. However, this is not necessarily the most difficult position to call. It seems slightly inevitable now that Jordan Pickford and Jack Butland will be joined, not by Burnley’s Nick Pope but, by West Ham United’s Joe Hart. He was simply outstanding against Chelsea this weekend, and is slowly regaining his composure at a crucial time.

It is in holding-midfield that Gareth Southgate has a real problem. He has no Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard, assured of a place – only a group of Gareth Barrys and Scott Parkers fighting it out for most likely four births in the squad.

This position is one that Gareth Southgate has most certainly seemed unsettled on. Nine players have played here in England’s last five games.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was being hailed England’s standout performer over the recent doubleheader against the Netherlands and Italy. He did nothing wrong in either game, and looks a totally different, more accomplished player to the chubby teenager Roy Hodgson chucked onto the right-wing every so often. His goal against Manchester City in the Champions League was exceptional, and he is certain to travel this summer, barring an injury.

Eric Dier has become one of England’s youngest first-team members. Breaking onto the scene at the end of 2015, the 24-year-old is comfortable as a centre-back too, and even as a right-back. He has played in defence on occasion for England. Already having captained England, he became a crucial member of Roy Hodgson’s squad, and has remained that way under Southgate. Dier may not have the extraordinary passing range of a Paul Scholes figure, but is defensively sound, disciplined, and a natural leader. He has chipped in with three crucial England goals too – the famous 2016 winner in Berlin, the thunderous free-kick against Russia at the Euros, and the equaliser against Slovakia at Wembley, in arguably England’s most important qualifier. A trusty choice: Dier is in.

Jordan Henderson is more experienced at captaining England than Dier, but has been a victim of much criticism in recent years. Many won’t recall that Henderson actually made his debut all the way back in 2010, under Fabio Capello. A crucial part of The Three Lions’ last World Cup campaign in 2014, Henderson has gained a reputation for backwards and sideways passing. At the time of writing, he has 400 career appearances for club and country, and is captain of one of the most successful clubs in English football history. It is his in-game performances that are perhaps a little below par. There is no doubt that Henderson can fire a wicked long shot, and he has the passing gene sleeping inside of him, but it needs to be deployed. If Henderson started and played awfully against Tunisia, Gareth Southgate would have too many options to replace him. He should go for his experience and his potential, but there are undoubtedly others knocking at the door for a way in. If they knock hard enough, Henderson must make way.

Jack Cork and Harry Winks will not travel. Neither has enough experience, nor has either played well enough for their clubs this season to deserve to gate-crash the party. We are unlikely to see Danny Drinkwater, whose Chelsea career has been largely based at Cobham rather than Stamford Bridge. Jake Livermore has been a favourite under Gareth Southgate, but simply isn’t international standard. Watching his scruffy altercation with Dani Alves in the Brazil match of November was a humiliating sight. The two were physically well matched, but whereas Dani Alves is an accomplished big game player, Jake Livermore is simply not. Adam Lallana and Lewis Cook, although not conventionally holding-midfielders, must be mentioned. If either of these were to spring a surprise and travel, it could reduce the defensive midfielder count down to just three. Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard will travel in that position. No one can dislodge them.

It comes down to a trio of recently regular Premier League starters to battle it out for just one place. These are Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jonjo Shelvey and Jack Wilshere. Loftus-Cheek injured himself against Brazil in November, just days on from dazzling on debut against world champions Germany. After a few months out, Loftus-Cheek made a slow and steady return to life at Crystal Palace, and is back as a regular starter. A fast, strong and skilful youngster, Loftus-Cheek was left out of England’s last squad because of his recent return from injury, but his inclusion in the final World Cup squad would not be a huge surprise.

One of the men that Ruben Loftus-Cheek is up against is Jonjo Shelvey. Picked sporadically during Roy Hodgson’s tenure as manager, Shelvey has amassed six England caps since 2012, scoring for many of England’s youth sides too. It is not news that Shelvey has a ferocious long-shot. His Premier League career has seen him regularly assist from Paul Scholes range, and on a once-per-season basis, score from thirty, forty or occasionally fifty yards out. The reason Shelvey is not an obvious pick relates to his poor discipline record. The former Swansea and Liverpool man has already been yellow carded 28 times in the Premier League, and given his marching order four. England aren’t entering the League Cup, they’re off to the World Cup, where they could face the likes of Spain, Germany or Brazil. One Jonjo Shelvey incident could put the entire team on the backfoot. This is a player with undoubted raw talent, but his discipline is what must be questioned above all else.

The most intriguing consideration is the possibility of a World Cup place for Jack Wilshere. The former teenaged star has had a rollercoaster ride at Arsenal, but Arsene Wenger loves the boy, and it’s easy to see why. A Premier League player since the 2008/09 season, he has perhaps underachieved in the competition, with only eight goals and sixteen assists overall. Nevertheless, the 26-year-old has faired well for England, scoring two scorching goals in Slovenia in 2015, and with a fair few inch-perfect assists too. Jack Wilshere’s problem has always been injury. His body works a little differently to other players, and his recovery time is always much, much longer. But at the moment he is fit and has been playing a starring role for an Arsenal side beginning to look threatening once more. Gareth Southgate missed out on the opportunity to view his England credentials when he pulled out of the March squad with a niggling injury. That may well be something that Wilshere will live to regret, but even if he doesn’t play any part this summer, he will certainly be back in the England team some time soon. Wilshere has the potential to be a world class player, it is only his injury issues making that an unlikely prospect.

The England manager has a lot of television to watch and a lot of games to attend before he submits his squad, and he needs to attend every one he can! The midfield is as tight to call as it has ever been, and all bets are off as to which three or four will travel. Dier, Henderson and Oxlade-Chamberlain seem to have their places secured. England fans will be watching with interest to see who, if anyone, will join them.

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