After years of bemoaning England’s lack of creative spark, this season’s Premier League campaign will be a welcome surprise for Gareth Southgate, ahead of the summer’s European Championships. All of sudden, the Three Lions are developing a wealth of imaginative and game-changing attacking midfielders.
In Thursday’s clash between Chelsea and Tottenham, it was Mason Mount who shone in the Blues’ 1-0 victory, ahead of all of the expensive talent Thomas Tuchel has at his disposal. In a squad that has been built from some of football’s biggest spending sprees, Manchester City look at young Phil Foden from Stockport, as the heir to David Silva’s throne.
At Leicester City, Brendan Rodgers’ title challenge continues to gather pace with James Maddison finding a new level at the heart of the attack. After surviving relegation by the skin of their teeth last season, Aston Villa’s surge up the table and contention for a European place has been driven by their outstanding English captain – Jack Grealish.
When England crashed out of the 2018 World Cup, in a semi-final defeat to Croatia, lack of creativity was universally highlighted as the biggest issue for a side too reliant on their striker, Harry Kane, coming deep to link-up play.
Southgate’s criticised 3-4-3 system is largely down to the lack of an obvious creative player centrally. The use of wing-backs means that England can get more offensive-minded players forward, without relying on the likes of Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice to try and inject an inventiveness that isn’t a part of their game when playing with their club sides.
The new line of talent at Southgate’s disposal can provide a solution. With many of these young Englishmen performing at football’s highest level the England manager’s next question will be which one he decides to pick.
Jack Grealish has been a stand-out performer in the Premier League this season. Aston Villa are only three points behind their total points tally from the last campaign, and Grealish’s talismanic displays mean he is now considered among one of the Premier League’s best midfielders.
Although he has been playing on the left of a front-three predominantly, his license to move inside onto his right-foot means that he spends the majority of games in the left half-space, and isn’t pinned to the touchline.
Grealish has always been regarded as a mercurial talent, but this season the addition of consistency and end product have moved him to the next level. Only Harry Kane has made more assists than him this season, and no player has made more key passes. He has won two penalties through his direct and powerful running, and has served up 20 goal-creating actions. Villa’s dynamic, high-intensity football has benefitted Grealish’s style more than anyone.
“I want to surpass 10 goals and 10 assists this season.” 📈
“I just want to get in the England team. I think about it all the time!” 🤩@JackGrealish shares his aspirations for club and country 🙏
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) February 5, 2021
In terms of creativity, Grealish sits head and shoulders above his England competition. If tangible output is the judge, it is difficult to beat the Aston Villa captain’s efficiency.
The player found it difficult to break into Southgate’s England set-up at first but he was a star during the international period at the back-end of 2020. He dominated in the win over the Republic of Ireland and Southgate called him ‘outstanding’ following his scintillating performance against Belgium.
After struggling with injury at the start of the season, James Maddison is beginning to find some of his best form. The Leicester City No.10 has 19 goal involvements across all competitions this season, with nine goals and 10 assists. At Craven Cottage on Wednesday, Maddison was pulling the strings again, with two first half assists in a commanding midfield display.
Maddison has not been goal-shy this season and has notched six in his last 12 Premier League appearances, significantly outperforming his xG (2.7). With Jamie Vardy injured for the Foxes, Maddison has been the man to step up and fill the void.
The 24-year-old has only one England cap to his name, making his debut in 2019. Having pulled out of a previous squad due to flu, Maddison was caught in controversy when photographed in a casino during one of England’s matches. In response, Southgate announced his desire for ‘high-performance, low-maintenance’ players. Maddison will now hope that his on-pitch displays are making up for his moment of ill-discipline.
James Maddison’s last 1️⃣2️⃣ games
8️⃣ Wins ✅
2️⃣ Draws 🤝
6️⃣ Goals ⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽
6️⃣ Assists 🅰️🅰️🅰️🅰️🅰️🅰️
1️⃣1️⃣ Shots On Target
1️⃣3️⃣ Accurate Long Balls
1️⃣6️⃣ Successful Dribbles
3️⃣4️⃣ Chances Created@Madders10 is a joy to watch right now, what a player 👏👏#LCFC pic.twitter.com/kYjFUSg4JE
— LCFC Miscellaneous 🦊 (@LCFCshitposting) February 4, 2021
Mason Mount has been a mainstay in the Chelsea team this season, and despite being dropped from Thomas Tuchel’s team in the new manager’s opening game, he immediately earned his starting spot back. Playing a slighter deeper role than the likes of Grealish and Maddison, Mount’s responsibility has centered around his all-round midfield play, as opposed to just what he is creating in the opponent’s half.
Mount has made more than double the amount of tackles Grealish, Maddison, and Man City’s Phil Foden have. The statistics read similarly with interceptions. His high-energy and enthusiastic desire to win the ball back means he also has made over 100 more pressures on opponents than any of his fellow England stars.
Primarily, Mount does look to attack and only three players have made more shot-creating actions in the league than him this season. He earned the man-of-the-match in Thursday’s win over Tottenham as he continues to look like the brightest spark for the Blues.
“I read a lot of things about Mason and I think he’s a very under-appreciated player – but not by us” said Southgate in October.
Mount has quickly become a favourite for the England manager with three goals in the thirteen England caps he has already managed to clock up some important moments. As more of a box-to-box midfielder, his ability to perform excellently at both sides of the game, mean he might be the current favourite to start for the national side in the summer.
Foden has played much less than Grealish, Maddison, and Mount, but he has had no less of an impact. The 20-year-old has been regarded as one of England’s hottest young talents since he won the Golden Ball at the Under-17 World Cup in 2017. During the current campaign he has gone from strength-to-strength under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and is the second-top goalscorer at the club this season.
Playing centrally, and from the left-hand side, Foden has also chalked up five assists as he continues to develop into a key player at a club that many said wouldn’t give him the chance. His ability to drift past opponents, his tight control, and eye for goal, make him the bookies’ favourite for the PFA Young Player of the Year.
Is Phil Foden England’s brightest young talent? pic.twitter.com/9MQKsZS39m
— LiveSoccerTV.com (@LiveSoccerTV) January 29, 2021
Foden has had a mixed start to his England career. Despite managing two goals in three senior appearances, his start to life under Gareth Southgate has been overshadowed by a disciplinary issue. Withdrawal from an England squad in September 2020 after breaking COVID-19 isolation protocols caused an uproar, but his return to the squad since the incident seems to suggest the situation is now behind him.
This all sets up an interesting subplot to the second half of the Premier League season. With Southgate unlikely to be able to find space for all four central attacking talents in one squad, and certainly not in one starting eleven, the race is on to prove the manager who deserves it.
The four players mentioned occupy a similar position on the pitch but all provide slightly differing attributes. Grealish has shown how clinical he is on the counter-attack and James Maddison is a goal-scoring threat. Mason Mount can operate deeper and threaten in the offensives areas, while Phil Foden can deliver that piece of magic from nowhere.
In a season in which Villa, Chelsea, Leicester and City all still have much to play for, these mavericks might have more to fight for than just their club’s success.