by Dom Smith
Eric Dier feels this month was his last chance to be named in the World Cup squad. He said so after scoring in Tottenham’s 6–2 battering of strugglers Leicester City at the weekend.
And he’s probably right.
He doesn’t have a glamorous name. He doesn’t have a glamorous appearance. He doesn’t score many goals or get many assists. He doesn’t have a particularly outgoing persona. These are the realities about Eric Jeremy Edgar Dier — and they probably go some way to explaining why he was never a fans’ favourite when he was an England player previously.
The 28-year-old defender didn’t start at the back. When he first broke into Roy Hodgson’s England side in 2015, he was a fresh-faced central midfielder, not yet balding, not yet considered unfashionable. He was one of the team’s better performers at an otherwise disastrous Euro 2016, starting as a double pivot at just 22.Embed from Getty Images
But as Hodgson’s reign ended, Sam Allardyce’s flashed by, and Southgate’s began, Dier slowly started to fall out of favour both with England fans and with the manager himself. It needed him to reinvent himself as a modern, progressive centre-back in a back three for Dier to cling on to his status as an England player.
He last played for England in November 2020 and was last called up in March 2021. Since then, Southgate has rightly been questioned as to why Dier hasn’t been selected. After all, he anchored the Tottenham back three under all of the club’s last four managers. And he’s been in the starting lineup under the last five — the special ones, and the not-so-special ones alike: Mauricio Pochettino, José Mourinho, Ryan Mason, Nuno Espírito Santo and the incumbent Antonio Conte.
Southgate’s answer has remained consistent. He has felt that Dier is not flexible enough to play at international level as part of a two-man centre-back partnership. In Southgate’s view, Dier has only been England quality in the centre of a back three — and the importance of his squad being tactically flexibility supersedes the importance of selecting Dier ahead of other options. Dier only works in a back three, he has heavily implied.
He asserted the importance of flexibility when speaking to EnglandFootball.org in March this year, saying: “We have tactically adaptable players, and games do demand that.”Embed from Getty Images
Dier, it seemed, did not fit this profile. But consistent performances at the highest level can only be ignored for so long. Dier has been composed and effective at the back for Spurs for the past two seasons. But this term he has raised his levels further still. Southgate couldn’t resist any longer and called him up for this month’s Nations League group games against Italy in Milan and Germany at Wembley.
The 28-year-old defender seemed relieved to be back in the England fold after nearly two years away when he spoke to EnglandFootball.org after Tottenham’s statement win over Leicester on Saturday.
He said about the win: “A really important win for us before the international break, so, yeah, very happy.
“It’s been a nice week”, he said — referencing his goal against Leicester, which came just two days after Southgate selected him in his 28-man England squad. It is the final England squad announcement until the World Cup squad is announced in October. His timing, like Ivan Toney’s, is impeccable.
Asked whether he feels he can make a late dash for the England starting line-up ahead of Qatar, Dier insisted: “I’m not thinking that far ahead at all. I’m just looking forward to going. As my manager [Conte] said during the week, for me it’s my ambition just for this to be a starting point for me. I think I can still do a lot more.”Embed from Getty Images
Dier was a starter for England at Euro 2016 in France and featured from the bench in Russia at the 2018 World Cup. He has 45 England caps; only five members of the current squad have more. Among regular viewers of the Premier League there is a feeling that Dier’s re-call should have come months, even years, ago. For Southgate, there is now clearly a feeling that Dier’s return is relatively free of risk.
Speaking to The FA last week, the England manager said of Dier: “He has been playing well for a period of time. We think it is a really close call across our centre-backs and he has deserved to be picked back in the group. We know what a good character he is. He fits in with the culture and has great international experience and leadership qualities.”
Southgate’s words bode well for Dier’s hopes not only of World Cup squad selection but of World Cup game time. So too does the fact that Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings hasn’t been picked this month and Harry Maguire has dropped to the bench at Manchester United.
What’s more, Southgate has become known for his conservative three-man backlines during his two major tournaments with England. With no signs to suggest that philosophy will change this time round, Dier could be the biggest beneficiary of all.
Written by Dom Smith; Copy-edited by Luke Widdowson