It’s important not to get too excited about a promising England debut, especially when it comes against such modest opposition as Lithuania and especially when it comes during a match that saw the Three Lions break them down just once by winning a penalty. Nonetheless, it’s already clear that Harry Winks offers Gareth Southgate’s side something uniquely different in the engine room.
All of England’s departments struggle when given time in possession, but that weakness is naturally epitomised by the midfield. Whereas the best teams in world football all have creative, technical talents who can pull the strings from deep, Southgate’s best options in the middle of the park – Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier and apparently Jake Livermore – belong in the more industrious category.
They have the energy to get up and down and the defensive awareness to protect the backline but they can’t unlock doors; which is why England are rarely able to capitalise against sides like Lithuania when they place ten men behind the ball and only look to frustrate the Three Lions.
That’s what makes Winks such an exciting alternative, and even more so after an incredibly positive debut from the Tottenham Hotspur youngster. In stark contrast to Henderson and Dier, Winks showed the willingness and the ability to make a greater impact offensively, recording the joint-most created chances of any player while completing two shots and two dribbles.
But what stood out most was Winks’ bravery in possession, especially for a player so young. He always made himself available to receive the ball in tight areas and his passing was decisive and crisp – completing the joint-most passes of any England player. That kept Southgate’s side ticking over in midfield and maintained the supply line to the final third.
Producing the goods against a team like Lithuania is wholly different to making the same impact against one of the top 15 in the current FIFA rankings – the kind of teams England will face at the World Cup, and the kind of teams where Dier and Henderson’s industriousness will likely be more appropriate anyway. But England will face teams who look to sit deep at tournaments as well – Algeria and Iceland providing the most recent examples – and that’s when Winks’ services could truly come to fore for his country.
Two years ago, Dier emerged from relative anonymity to become one of the first names on the England team-sheet at Euro 2016, simply because of the limited competition in defensive midfield. Winks, who Transfermarkt at just £3.6million, now finds himself in a similar situation; his rivals as England’s deep-lying playmaker include Mark Noble, who is still awaiting his first senior cap at the age of 30, Jonjo Shelvey, who continues to divide opinion with petulant behaviour and Jack Wilshere, who can’t get a game at Arsenal and will probably pick up an injury before next summer.
Of course, whether Winks can replicate Dier’s drastic growth in importance will depend on how much he features for Tottenham this season, with just one Premier League start under his belt thus far, which will likely be linked to the fate of another potential rival in the deep-lying role not only for club but also for country – Everton’s Ross Barkley.
Tottenham have been tipped to swoop for the Toffees midfielder in January and play him alongside Dier as an alternative to Mousa Dembele, which would certainly make him a strong candidate to occupy the same role for the Three Lions. But considering how much Spurs would likely have to pay for Barkley, even with just six months left on his Goodison contract, and the fact he’s first and foremost an attacking midfielder, do they really the 23-year-old when Winks is showing such promising form?
For Mauricio Pochettino and Southgate, England’s latest debutant could prove the wiser option.