England's next generation of midfielders promise precision rather than power
The World Cup was a curious experience for England fans. On the one hand there was the joy, excitement and, for anyone under the age of 35, the novelty of seeing their team reach the last four. But the constant buzzing in the back of everyone's mind was the strong suspicion that when they went up against an elite team, they would be in trouble.
And so it came to pass. Although, for "elite team," perhaps it would be more accurate to say "elite midfield." Ultimately that was the difference in the 2-1 extra-time semifinal loss to Croatia with Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic running rings around England's engine room. Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard are all fine players in their own way but ball-players in the class of their opponents they are not.
It's been a theme for some years, the sense that the English are way behind teams like Croatia and Spain -- their opponents in their two Nations League fixtures this weekend -- when it comes to ball possession, passing, creativity and general control of big games.
There have been repeated laments about the search for the "English Xavi," or perhaps now the "English Modric." It's part of the reason why many found it so difficult to let go of Jack Wilshere, the great hope of English tiki-taka, despite a career marked by inconsistency and injuries.
But do England now have a generation of players coming through to solve that? The most eye-catching call-up to Gareth Southgate's latest squad was Jadon Sancho, but might the most significant be Mason Mount, James Maddison and Harry Winks?
To think any of those players will reach the genius of Xavi or Modric is to place unfair and undue pressure on a group of young men still learning their game, but a group of creative midfielders are coming through the ranks that at the very least fit the profile.
These are youngsters who have grown up watching the great European ball-players.
"David Silva and Philippe Coutinho, in that No. 10 role," said Maddison this week, when asked who he admires. "Players like that, I always try and take little things from their game and maybe add to mine."
Sancho's answer to a similar question was John Barnes (a favourite of his dad) and Ronaldinho, watching clips of the latter in school when he really should have been paying attention to his teacher. These are players whose young minds have been shaped by creative players, who have learned and are learning by watching artists.
And there are options, too. Phil Foden, the 17-year-old Manchester City playmaker who is with the under-21s this week, but will be with the senior squad before long, is next.
"There are definitely a few coming through who can be that person," he said, when asked about the prospect of him filling the creative midfield role. "Mason Mount, for example, can be that person. It's exciting. It's good to see."
The natural temptation is to predict great things of them all, but these are still kids. Sancho is the first player to be picked for the England senior squad born this century. Foden is slight to the point of looking fragile, has a wispy moustache and is still waiting for a growth spurt. Mount is 19. Maddison and Winks relative veterans at 21 and 22 respectively.
Still, they are all confident. At England's training base St George's Park this week, a common thread from all these players was an assurance when it came to talking about their ability. They all looked nervous, but their words carried the air of young men perfectly aware of how good they are.
"I always know myself whether I have played well or not," said Maddison. "I don't need other people to tell me if I have played well or I haven't, I know myself and I always watch the games back.
"Sometimes, maybe you get credit in the games that you score, and people say 'Oh what a player!'
"But in my mind I think: 'You know what, I didn't actually play well today.'"
There is always the temptation to wonder whether England actually need their own Andres Iniesta or David Silva. Is this just another example of a country with a slight inferiority complex idolising the way other countries do things and trying to emulate them? The Three Lions achieved their best performance in a quarter of a century in Russia without a ball-playing midfielder of international repute. They found a way of succeeding without a player who could complete 150 passes a game. Should England try to build on that rather than attempting to be an ersatz version of Spain 2010?
Maybe. But building a team that features players who can keep the ball and control games can't be a bad thing, as long as they're not totally relied upon. The good news for England is there are plenty of candidates to fill the role.
Southgate's latest squad is young. Nobody is older than 28. Which means it's filled with promise, not yet achievement. Much of that promise is in midfield, where there are a number of candidates to fill the role they've been missing for years. It's possible that the World Cup semifinal could just be the start of exciting times for England.