For the first time in years, England go into a World Cup without a genuine top quality Central Midfielder at the height of their powers in their ranks. There was Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes, Robson, now there is Henderson and...? With a World Cup only 8 months away, who can we expect to see lining up centrally in Russia next summer?
Jordan Henderson-- The Liverpool captain is a solid Premier League player, but he just doesn't have the quality to be the main man in England's midfield. He is a good foil for other players, willing to do the dirty work and let the flair players shine. But he lacks that little extra bit of class and finesse that separates the good from the truly great. He has, however, emerged as a leader in the dressing room, and if fit will certainly be on the plane to Russia.
Dele Alli-- Arguably the most exciting of the English talents at the moment behind Lord Harry, Alli is a world class player in the making. Although he's had an uncharacteristically quiet start to the season, Alli is one of those players who can turn a game in an instant. Over the years, England have occasionally shied away from instinctive flair players like Alli, and have opted instead to build the team around mass produced, solid, effective, route-one kind of footballers. Crazy to think that the likes of Matt Le Tissier only had a handful of caps, and Scholes was often shafted out to left midfield. Luckily for Alli, the game has moved on and he is in a generation that appreciates and recognizes skill and flair over grit and strength. I expect him to play just off Kane in a #10 role, so slightly further forward than a classic central midfielder, and hopefully he can finally bring some of that impish football charm to the international stage.
Eric Dier-- Dier has been at the heart of Pochettino's Spurs revolution, and has put in some very good performances for England as well. Like Henderson, Dier is a no-nonsense kind of midfielder. He'll hold his position and crunch into tackles but don't expect him to provide the creative spark or defense splitting pass going forward. If he keeps up his good form for Spurs, I would fully expect Dier to slot in alongside Henderson behind Dele Alli next June.
Adam Lallana-- The Liverpool man is a great player to have in the squad, as he can play LW, RW, at 10, and at 8 and is definitely a player who can make an impact from the bench. He hasn't featured for Liverpool yet this season because of injury, but is due back after this international break. If he can get back into the Liverpool team, and find some of the same form that led him to being almost the first name on Klopp's team sheet at times last season, he will be heading to Russia without a doubt.
Fabian Delph-- If only he could keep fit! I loved Delph at Aston Villa. When Villa got to the FA Cup final a few years ago, he dragged them into the final single-handedly with a brave performance that led to victory against Liverpool in the semi. He got his big move to City after that, and has been disappointingly injured for the majority of it. However, he is enjoying a run in the side (albeit at left back) at the moment, and his energy, versatility, and experience would make him a valuable asset to an England team desperately in need of those 3 things at the moment.
Harry Winks-- Plenty has been written about Winks' recent performances for Spurs against the likes of Kroos and Modric, and he deserves all the praise that has come his way. He looked so assured and unphased at facing arguably the two best midfielders in the world, and completely held his own. If he can continue to keep Dembele and Wanyama out of the Spurs team and stay fit, I wouldn't be surprised to see him maybe even pushing for a starting spot next summer.
Danny Drinkwater-- Drinkwater's summer move to Chelsea in a World Cup year surprised me. Perhaps he looked at N'Golo Kante last season and thought, "That should've been me. I should have taken my move last summer." The big difference is Kante would get into almost every team in the world at present, and Drinkwater wouldn't get anywhere near most of them. He was a star at Leicester, and was a guaranteed starter every week. At Chelsea I can't see him featuring more than in the odd cup game-- a Steve Sidwell or Scott Parker 3.0. Without playing regularly, he won't push for a spot in the England squad, despite his undoubted calmness, and metronomic quality on the ball.
Jack Cork-- Jack Cork has been crucial to Burnley's great start to the season. He's the classic "engine room" kind of player, and has taken his game to another level this season. Having been called into the England squad this week, I am interested to see how he does in the upcoming friendlies. If he exerts himself well, he is the type of player Southgate seems to like so I could see him as a surprise inclusion in next summer's World Cup squad.
Tom Davies-- The Everton man burst onto the scene last year with a scintillating man-of-the-match performance against Guardiola's City. Calm in possession, with a real eye for a pass, Davies is one I am excited to see develop over the next few years. This World Cup may come just a little too soon for him, but I fully expect him to be part of the full England set up within the next year or so.
James Ward-Prowse-- He is perhaps the best set piece deliverer England has produced since David Beckham, but I have yet to see JWP deliver much else. He is definitely one to watch, but a player of his undoubted technical ability should be hitting much higher numbers in terms of goals and assists. If he can have a strong rest of the season, he could sneak on the plane to Russia, but he has several players ahead of him in the pecking order at this point in time.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek-- I keep waiting for Loftus-Cheek to have the break out season I know he has in him somewhere. He has all the attributes to be exactly the type of midfielder that England have been crying out for for years-- pace, power, drive, height, and a touch of flair. Another one who has been unlucky with injuries, I'm hoping that Loftus-Cheek can make the most of playing Premier League football week in week out while on loan at Crystal Palace this season, and make a late push for the England squad. Southgate is taking notice, as he is in line to start for England's friendly against Germany this evening.
Phil Foden-- Why the hell not? Although he'd be more likely to rival Dele Alli and Adam Lallana for a starting #10 position, he could occupy that slightly deeper lying playmaker role as well. Perhaps the highest compliment I can give him is that when I saw him play for City against United in a preseason friendly this summer, I thought "Wow who's this little Spanish youngster that City have picked up?" thinking that Foden was some exotic young talent from the continent. Imagine my surprise to learn that he was the most Mancunian player on the pitch that night for City. His performances for England in their recent victorious U17 World Cup campaign were nothing short of spectacular, and if Guardiola is a fan then I am too.
The Dear God Nos:
Jack Wilshere-- Please no. He is injury prone, rash, and is maybe the only person in England who would come close to Joey Barton in a "Twat of the Year" competition. Yes he was brilliant against Barcelona 7 years ago Arsenal fans, but the game has moved past him and Wilshere has stood still. He can't start for Arsenal so he should be nowhere near the England squad.
Tom Cleverley-- He's had a great start to the season with Watford (despite that woeful penalty miss at the weekend), but it's simple with Cleverley. He's just not good enough.
Ross Barkley-- Barkley has got to be one of the most frustrating talents in the Premier League. When he broke into the first team at Everton a couple of years ago, he looked like a special player. He had that swagger about him and the ability to create something out of nothing that reminded me of an early Wayne Rooney. But he has regressed and stagnated massively in recent years. I think a move away from boyhood club Everton would revitalize him, but not to a top 4 club where he won't play every week. He is still young, so time is fully on his side, and if he can get the move his career desperately needs I wouldn't be surprised to see him back in the England set up sooner rather than later.
Jonjo Shelvey-- Another member of Barton and Wilshere's Twat Brigade, Shelvey is better known for moments of madness than moments of brilliance. Under Laudrup at Swansea a few years ago, Shelvey was magnificent at times, and looked like a real contender for a starting England spot. But he too has gone backwards since then, and I wouldn't trust him to keep his head and emotions in check on the biggest of international stages.
Jake Livermore-- I know Southgate is a fan but Livermore is mediocre at best. I would much rather see England take an untested youngster with an eye for the unexpected. With Livermore we know what we'd be getting-- steady, safe, boring, by no means a game changer.
So there you have it. Lots and lots of options for Gareth Southgate to mull over in the coming months. Despite this midfield dilemma, for the first in a while, England do have genuine quality in other areas of the pitch. They have a world class forward in Harry Kane, quick, dynamic and in form wide men in Rashford and Sterling, and a relatively solid back line as long as Gary Cahill and his spectacular own goals remain on the bench. What Southgate should avoid is jamming as many big name players into a line up as possible which doesn't allow any of them to shine (see Hodgson's Euro 2016 campaign, Eriksson's Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006 campaigns). Pick a central midfield partnership who can compliment each other, win the ball quickly, and get it to the feet of the more talented players ahead of them. Southgate is the first manager in recent memory who doesn't seem to mind ruffling any senior players' feathers (RIP Wayne Rooney's international career 2003-2016), and in a weird way he is lucky he doesn't have the problem of trying to figure out how to get Lampard, Gerrard, and Scholes into the same team at the same time. So maybe just maybe that means he'll be able to pick a twosome or threesome that actually works together, and maybe just maybe England's central midfield dilemma could actually be a blessing in disguise.