England’s central midfield is once again under scrutiny – but could prospects from Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool help solve their problems in the area?
A 2-1 defeat to Spain at Wembley highlighted England’s lack of creativity and control in the middle of the park – something Gareth Southgate admits they have struggled to develop over the years.
“The only one in my lifetime is Paul Gascoigne and I’m not sure he was developed, I think he was a consequence of a unique talent,” he said.
Jordan Henderson started as the holding midfielder with Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard allowed to roam further forward.
“It was tough,” Henderson said. “We tried to press higher up the pitch and it became a little disjointed at times.”
He added: “It left a lot of space, especially in the middle, and when you are playing in a three you are covering a lot of ground.”
With the problem position back in the spotlight, we’ve looked at eight young contenders who could fill the role and what has been said by the likes of Southgate on each one.
Possibly the most obvious candidate for the role, Cook was on England’s stand-by list for the World Cup and has already appeared under Southgate, earning his grandad £17,000 when he made his senior debut against Italy in March because of a bet.
“He’s a talented footballer with a nice range of passing,” Southgate said upon Cook’s call-up in March. “We want to progress the ball through midfield and Lewis is a player with great pedigree with us – Under-17 European champions, Under-20 World Cup-winning captain – and those experiences have got to count for us as we build a team.
“He’s playing really well for Bournemouth in a side that play really good football, he’s comfortable in receiving the ball in any area of the field. We had a brief spell working with him in November and we’re looking forward to working with him again.”
Southgate is clearly a fan of the 21-year-old, but a slow start to the season – he has played just 17 minutes of Premier League football – saw the former Leeds prodigy miss out on the latest squad.
One of the most exciting prospects in the country, Foden was named Player of the Tournament, as England’s Under-17s won their World Cup in 2017. He also set tongues wagging with a promising display in this season’s Community Shield.
But, when asked whether he had considered calling up the likes of Foden, Southgate replied: “What have they done to warrant an England senior call-up?” he asked. “We’re as excited by them as anyone else, but given the profile of some of those lads at the moment we’ve got to be really careful.
“I think those guys have a got a good mentality and can cope with most things, but there are issues. How much are they going to play for their clubs? So if I’m going to elevate them internationally I have to ask is that realistic?”
Foden’s City team-mate Kyle Walker also warned about exposing the 18-year-old to the senior squad before he is ready.
“I think [Foden] needs to come through and be nurtured the right way,” he said. “We have seen a lot of people being given the opportunity too early, and it kinds of swallows them up.
“So I think let’s just let him keep playing football and leave it up to the other people who have got to make those decisions.”
And England Under-19 boss Keith Downing has explained the current plan is to allow the Under-17 World Cup-winning squad the chance to collectively mature as a team.
“Our aim this year is to keep developing the players to move up the pathway and take their chance whenever it comes,” Downing said.
“We know how valuable that these experiences are at youth level for when players break into the U21s and senior teams and it will hold them in good stead.”
Something of a forgotten man after a torrid time with injury, it’s easy to forget the excitement which surrounded Winks after his display for Tottenham against Real Madrid and his breakthrough into the England squad.
After Winks was named man-of-the-match on his debut against Lithuania in 2017, Southgate said: “I was really pleased [with Winks], I thought he showed great maturity, he didn’t look fazed by wearing an England shirt.
“His quality on the ball was good, he was the one that found forward passes and he looked to play forward. I thought he could be very proud of his debut.”
However, an untimely ankle injury wiped Winks out for the majority of 2018 to date. He eventually required surgery and has only recently returned to fitness, making three cameos in the Premier League this term.
Like many of England’s World Cup side, Maddison has worked his way up to the Premier League, with loan spells in League One and the SPL among his CV before he began to catch the eye in the Championship with Norwich City.
Maddison’s form for the Canaries earned him a £25million move to Leicester City in the summer, where he has already impressed in the top flight.
Jamie Redknapp recently pushed for the inclusion of the 21-year-old, writing in the Daily Mail: “I watched him play against Liverpool recently. Despite facing one of the highest-energy midfields in the country, Maddison was the standout player in the game.
“He had a fantastic season last year with Norwich, scoring 14 goals and setting up another eight. The fact that he has worked his way up through League One and the Championship means he has slipped under the radar.
“Maddison may not look the quickest, but, like Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, he has a deceptive extra yard of pace that allows him to go past people.
“He has made the step up to the Premier League seamlessly and is thriving playing alongside better players. Capped four times at Under 21 level, he is already good enough for a senior call-up. Maintain his early season form and that will only be a matter of time.”
Like Foden, there is plenty of hype surrounding Mount, who was invited to train with England’s World Cup squad prior to the tournament in Russia.
The Chelsea youngster is currently learning his trade under Blues icon Frank Lampard while on loan at Derby, having shone at Vitesse last term.
And the 19-year-old is clearly among Southgate’s plans, with the England boss speaking at length about the player prior to the Three Lions’ most recent fixtures.
“He is a player we really like and because of those first-team experiences he is going to progress faster than others who maybe aren’t getting those experiences,” he said.
“He is also of the mentality we like – he’s a super kid. He is one that has not been mentioned as much as others who have not got to his level yet.
“I think it’s an absolute positive step what he [Mount] is doing this season.”
Perhaps a surprise name on this list given he has played the vast majority of his senior football at right-back, but many at Liverpool are expecting Alexander-Arnold to develop into a central midfielder over the coming years.
The 19-year-old played in the position during his time with the Reds’ academy, catching the eye of Steven Gerrard, who wrote in his autobiography: “Trent is another Scouser and apparently, just as I tried to be John Barnes and Steve McMahon, he grew up pretending to be me while playing in the Merseyside parks.
“He can play as a No 6, a holding midfielder, but he’s versatile and I’ve seen him fill various positions. I know England are all over him.”
Loftus-Cheek is currently in the bizarre position of being more in favour at international level than he is with his club.
The midfielder impressed for England since making his debut in 2017, earning eight caps and making a few exciting cameos at the World Cup, but is struggling to break into the starting XI at Stamford Bridge.
A loan spell at Crystal Palace allowed Loftus-Cheek to flourish, and it was while at Selhurst Park that the 22-year-old earned plenty of praise from Southgate.
After a man-of-the-match debut against Germany, Southgate said: “Well, he’s a player I’ve watched do that from Under-16 level.
“Despite his size, appearance and the way he plays, he’s not hugely confident at times and I think tonight it took him 10 minutes to have a look around him and think, ‘Alright, okay, I can do this.’
“He’s got so many good attributes, top attributes, and that’s why we put him into the team. I don’t think the wider public may be as aware of him – you would have to follow very closely – but we believe in him and believe in the others we played.”
Despite being the oldest player on this list, Chalobah is yet to make his senior debut for England, although he has extensive experience at youth level.
However, were it not for an untimely injury after a bright start for Watford last season, the 23-year-old would have surely featured for the Three Lions.
Southgate is a huge admirer of the former Chelsea prospect and included the player in his squad last August. He was also invited to train with the side in the summer as he continued his recovery.
The England boss name-checked Chalobah again when recently asked about the likes of Foden and Mount, asking: “Are they ahead of the likes of Chalobah, who has around 100 England youth caps and should progress again in the Premier League?”