It’s hard to know what, if anything, England could have done differently at the World Cup.
The semi-final defeat to Croatia did expose certain weaknesses, but they were ones which tactical planning and game preparation were never likely to cure.
Ultimately, England lost because they failed to control the middle of the pitch. When it mattered most, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic held the greatest influence over that semi-final’s direction.
Gareth Southgate doesn’t have that kind of player. English midfielders over the past decade have fitted into one category or another: they are either dynamic, forceful types like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, or of a restricting, deeper sort, such as Eric Dier or Jordan Henderson.
Being able to literally pass is a pre-requisite for any international footballer, and both Dier and Henderson have an occasionally decisive ball in their armoury, but neither ever really enjoys complete command of what’s happening around them.
The next generation is different, in all sorts of ways. England is currently sagging under the weight of developing, technically-proficient players and Lewis Cook is one of them.
Cook is now entering his third season at Bournemouth having moved from Leeds United in July of 2016. It was a natural move; he belonged in the Premier League and his transfer gave him the opportunity to both start regularly and to play for a manager who preaches control of the ball.
It probably wasn’t the most lucrative option available to him, but it was likely the smartest: four league starts in 2016-17 became 25 the next year, and to watch Cook now is to see an integral part of Bournemouth’s midfield.
The interesting part of that, though, is the associated style. Cook is still just 21 and while it’s not unusual to see players of his age appear in the top flight, it’s rare to watch someone of that age exhibit such command of his position.
He still has plenty to learn, clearly, and defensively he remains a work in progress, but he’s already mesmerising in a lot of ways.
Under the radar
Not, however, in a way which translates into the mainstream. Cook is not a YouTube footballer. He’s not likely to be captured performing some outlandish skill in a viral Twitter post, but he’s still good for the soul – reassuring in a pure sort of way.
Back in March, Jermain Defoe compared him to Luka Modric. Defoe would know, having played with the Croatian at Tottenham
“When I first came to the club he was someone I obviously already knew, because of the success he had in the summer with the young England team, winning the World Cup as captain,” Defoe told talkSPORT.
“I call him ‘little maestro’. I said to him, ‘You remind me of Luka Modric,’ and he said, ‘Nah JD, you can’t say that, he plays for Real Madrid!’
“But seriously, the way he plays, the way he receives the ball, his confidence, the way he takes the ball into certain areas. He never panics. He’s one of those players who stays on the ball.”
Defoe said he reminds him of modric, he sees him day in day out. I would take cook, end of, don't need to spend 89 million on CMs. When you can spend 20 million and turn them world class.
— 〽️arc Arnott (@Marc_Arns10) August 2, 2018
Quibble with the comparison, but not the rationale. Defoe is right – Cook receives possession with great ease. Not with any unteachable skill, but in a natural, logical way which makes the game look simple.
Anybody who regularly attends Premier League matches is aware of just how quick a top-flight midfield tends to be and how congested that area of the pitch invariably is. But to watch Cook in that environment is to see someone capable of slowing it down, of doing everything at a pace which he determines.
Needs to be seen live
The Modric parallel is unhelpful, just because it provokes a reflexive rejection. Instead then, draw the lines with Michael Carrick.
He needed to be watched in person. Seeing Carrick play on television had its value but often obscured the levels of excellence he achieved within his position.
Conversely, the fans sat in the stand could see the pressure he was often under – the closing press, the lack of options ahead of him – and could marvel at his ability to counter with a perfect setting touch, a calm but knifing pass which took two or three opponents out of position, or even a square ball which would open space from within which a move could grow.
A true comparison is pointless, because Carrick spent most of his career surrounded by top-class match-winners. Cook’s is really yet to begin and, with due respect to Bournemouth, they are clearly not Manchester United.
There are still signs, though. 2017-18 at Dean Court was not an overwhelming success, and at times it was actually a real struggle, but buried within some of the heavy losses suffered by Howe’s team were some truly exceptional bits of play.
Cook’s touch and pass 10 yards outside his own box against Tottenham, for instance, which sprung Josh King and sent him through on goal.
Or his fifty yard surge past Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic when Manchester United visited in April, and then his measured ball inside Phil Jones from which Callum Wilson should have scored.
Or the artful, no-look flick into the path of Adam Smith, from which the full-back would lash the Cherries back into the game against Newcastle a few weeks later.
These are just highlights and there are plenty of them. But they occur between countless, perfect switches of play, many little nudges around corners and within this charming overall appreciation for how football matches are won and lost.
On Saturday, I was at the Vitality Stadium to see Bournemouth start with a 2-0 win over Cardiff. Cook didn’t play and, apparently detained by sponsors afterwards, he didn’t appear in the Mixed Zone either.
But I have spoken to him before, while he was on England duty with the U21s. Like many of his generation, he’s polite and smart, still a little shy in front of the media but a thoughtful young man and capable of speaking in more than platitudes. Hands behind his back, good eye contact. It’s not just “gaffer this” and “gaffer that”, he has a mind of his own.
The whole package – the personality and the playing profile – is very impressive. He’s someone you want to see succeed. Also one who it takes little imagination to see doing so.
Lewis Cook is not Michael Carrick. He’s not really Luka Modric either. He is of that kind, though. His profile is of a player destined to be under-appreciated until he’s missing, or until such a moment when he achieves something so substantial as to make any counter-argument redundant.
Hopefully, this time England will know what to with such a player. The most obvious point about Carrick was that he was underused by his country.
Thirty-four caps is a ludicrous return considering his worth and is testament to just how immature England’s selection policy often was; the over-deference to match-winning bombast was quite ludicrous and, obviously, counter-productive.
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Cook has already been capped, though. As with several others within the emerging generation, he has been accelerated into the senior squad and appeared as a late substitute against Italy before the World Cup.
It’s smart planning. Come 2020, 2022 and beyond, England will have to nurture the many players who are now emerging, and most of those are far more incendiary than Cook, perhaps more exciting too.
None are likely to be more important, though. When this country next finds itself in a semi-final and searching for an elusive rhythm, he’ll likely be the one tasked with controlling it.