A problem that has plagued England for years, perhaps a decade or two. Not since England could call upon the services of Owen Hargreaves at Euro 2008 have they had a defensively-minded player in holding midfield.
Scott Parker and Gareth Barry were probably the closest Fabio Capello could find, but their quality at international level was always in doubt – especially for the latter, after the then-Manchester City was outclassed by Arsenal’s record signing Mesut Ozil in Bloemfontein. The former, admittedly, did pretty well for his country as England were knocked out of Euro 2012 without losing any of their four fixtures.
Current England boss Roy Hodgson tried to solve this conundrum in 2014, when he attempted to recreate Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool template by deploying skipper Steven Gerrard as a deep-lying playmaker. That did not work as the Three Lions crashed out in the group stages.
This year though, the emergence of surprise packages Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur has finally given Hodgson not one, but two realistic options for that vital role in front of the back four.
Important Pivots for Club. And Country?
Admittedly, both Eric Dier and Danny Drinkwater did not start their careers as pure defensive midfielders. Technically, both play in a two-man midfield for their clubs, with Dier usually partnered by the offensive-minded Moussa Dembele, while Drinkwater is flanked by the energetic N’Golo Kante.
However, both have proven very adept at breaking up play and protecting their back four when their teams are under pressure. Both have proven to be catalysts which allow the offensive players – such as England team-mates Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli, as well as the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela – to shine.
dier/drinkwater: key men in their clubs’ unlikely title challenge/success
Leicester and Spurs have an almost identical goal difference in the league. The Foxes were only a single goal away from equalling Spurs, and Manchester United, in sharing the best defensive record in the league. With Leicester and Spurs only third and second to Manchester City respectively in terms of goal scored, it would not be difficult to argue that Drinkwater and Dier provided the right balance for their teams.
Hodgson will likely go for a single holding midfielder in a 4-4-2 diamond or 4-2-3-1 formation, and one of this two will almost certainly start in that role – despite the late charge from Jack Wilshere to convince Hodgson to do away with a defensive midfielder and instead go for a deep-lying playmaker a la Gerrard in 2014.
Dier Edges Drinkwater
Starting his Tottenham career as a right-back, after being deemed too cumbersome to play as a centre-back, a huge amount of credit will undoubtedly go to Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino for trusting Dier in defensive midfield – a role he did play a few times for former club Sporting Lisbon.
Dier’s experience playing at the back sees him edge Drinkwater in terms of his defensive reading of the game, recording a superior rate of interceptions as compared to the former United academy product. Dier also just edges Drinkwater with more blocks and less fouls committed. Both are fairly even with the number of clearances, with Drinkwater’s only fairing better in winning more tackles than Dier, perhaps due to his more energetic style.
Finer details, like conceding as little free kicks as possible, are more stark at international level, and this is probably why Hodgson will go with Dier as his starting holding midfielder in France. With England’s fairly average central defensive pairing, the greater defensive solidity of Dier could help Hodgson shore up England’s defence. Dier’s history as a centre-back would see him to drop into defence more naturally than Drinkwater, forming a three-man defence which would allow the full-backs to bomb on and provide the necessary width – exactly how Pochettino lined Spurs up last season.
Drinkwater As The Offensive Option
As much as it’s peculiar to say this, Drinkwater could be an attacking option for Hodgson, should England be chasing the game. In search of a goal, England fans would be calling for more forwards or attacking midfielders to be thrown on, perhaps pulling of Dier in the process. However, this could leave England vulnerable to the dreaded sucker-punch.
One other option could actually be for Hodgson to haul off Dier in place of Drinkwater. More of a central midfielder than a purely defensive one, Drinkwater recorded 5 more league assists as compared to Dier, and created a greater amount of chances. He also just edges Dier in terms of forward passes. This could be attributed to the fact that Drinkwater goes forward more often for Leicester than Dier does for Spurs. However, this could work to England’s advantage.
In bringing Drinkwater on as England chase a game, Hodgson would not be risking too much defensively, as Drinkwater would still provide the necessary defensive cover while giving England another midfield player more likely to provide the killer pass.
Possible Double Pivot
As mentioned, Dier will likely go into the Euros as Hodgson’s first choice holding midfield player. Similar to how England started against Australia, Drinkwater could be the second midfield ‘shuttler’ in a 4-4-2 diamond, with Dier at the base.
However, against the bigger boys, there is that last option of playing both Dier and Drinkwater as a double defensive midfield pivot in a 4-2-3-1, providing an extra layer of protection for England’s average back four. Such a tactical move could throw England’s top-class opponents off, and possibly help the Three Lions grind out a shock result against the likes of Spain or Germany.
will hodgson only turn to drinkwater in an emergency?
The emergence of Dier and Drinkwater, mirroring their clubs’ respective rise in the league, could finally see England solve their perennial problem in holding midfield. Even if England do not make a big enough impact at this year’s Euros, fans will hope Dier and Drinkwater can continue on their upward trajectory and become top-class holding midfielders at Russia 2018.