Kyle Walker was England’s man of the match in the slightly wild defeat of Wales in Lens, fine reward for a really wholehearted player.
Walker stood out at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis, in part because of his high-intensity defending, but also because of his clean, unfuzzed straight lines in an otherwise frantic match. This is a player who doesn’t just patrol or police his flank but sprints from start to finish at wild-eyed top speed like a man being chased through a market square by a rabid horse.
Watching Walker at his relentless best it is tempting to worry a little, should the pitch markings become unclear or a gate be left open in the wrong place, that he might overshoot and end up pounding his way out of the stadium and down the A1 towards Arras, steaming past the truck stops and laybys, still furiously making space, still available on the overlap.
Walker’s drive is a huge asset, and in Lens he was a beautifully focused one-man straight line. But my own man of the match was Eric Dier, who has been excellent so far in France and was Uefa’s pick in the previous game in Marseille. Urgent, quietly assertive, at times doing his job simply by standing still in the right areas, Dier is a genuinely unusual kind of English footballer.
Albeit, in a sporting sense he isn’t really an English footballer at all. His adolescence was Portuguese. His defensive-midfield education at Spurs has been Argentinian. Little wonder he stands out, taking the role in Marseille and Lens of a long-suffering midfield Jeeves, gliding into position with the drinks tray, holding the door, straightening the pictures, while in front of him England’s own mob-handed attacking Drones Club whirls about swinging from the chandeliers and trashing the dinner service.
If Dier stands out in this it is perhaps because he is the only player in England’s starting front six unquestionably in his right position, and undeniably the best man available for the job. Everyone else is to some degree a squeeze, a fudge, a gambit. Whereas Dier is something else, a convert to the midfield shield role who really does have the air of a specialist these days, an improving, intelligent 22-year-old who is in his own way the first of this type England have produced since the idea of a four-square 4-4-2 bit the dust.
Before anyone talks about hyperbole or building them up to cut them down, let’s be clear. No one’s saying he’s a world-beater, a robot Makelele with Beckenbauer add-ons. But he is an undeniably interesting player. Not to mention the most reassuring, settled member of this England team.
Don’t just take my word for it. At the time of writing, Dier was eighth on Uefa’s own player barometer, a kind of team of the tournament device, and second behind only N’Golo Kanté in his position. He scored that wonderful free‑kick goal against Russia, a repeat, it turns out with the benefit of Google, of his first professional goal for Sporting Lisbon. His passing has been solid at the base of midfield, and not always low-risk, at times progressive and driving.
Best of all has been his positioning. Dier doesn’t really tackle much. He steps across, he covers, he hustles and shuttles away. He is the only starting England player yet to commit a foul at these Euros, fine work from a covering player. This despite the fact one of his real gifts to this team is his hugely reassuring physical power, the ability to win a challenge without taking much out of himself and without the need to foul, more evidence of the importance in modern football’s semi-contact crush of the importance of upper body strength.
At least once in Lens, Chris Smalling was simply eased aside on the gallop by Hal Robson-Kanu, a fine all-round athlete who looks like he’d be equally good at rugby, or the decathlon or carrying barrels and throwing them on a truck slightly quicker than various gurning men from Iceland.
Dier was also the England player who tended to occupy Gareth Bale’s spaces, interrupting his bursts, matching him in the clinches where Bale often kicks off one of those skating runs by bouncing away the nearest defender. Perhaps Dier’s best moment came late in the first half when he nicked the ball away from Bale near goal, then put in a well-judged stretching lunge through Aaron Ramsey, a moment of old-school enforcement only in extremis.
This is perhaps the best bit of Dier. He’s good at not doing things, at simply occupying his space. Perhaps the years spent away from the get‑into‑’em dynamic of English youth football helped, along with his own confidence in the detailed positional drills of Mauricio Pochettino at Spurs. Either way, Dier has a lovely muscular stillness to him, a world away from the exhausting cover-every-blade ethos of the football-by-numbers “ball-winner”.
The best No10s often find space by standing still. Alessandro Del Piero was an expert at the meaningful pause. In the same way, the best No4s can cover simply by stopping, plugging, refusing to flinch and open space for a counterattack. As any cricketer will tell you, the leave – in its own way the most decisive of all the shots – is often the most aggressive, most intelligent form of defence.
Again Dier feels like something new here. English football has often produced high-class enforcers such as the excellent David Batty, a player who strolled about the pitch like the kind of quiet, chillingly effective nightclub bouncer who keeps a set of steak knives and a bag of human teeth in the boot of his car. Paul Ince was very good for a while as a converted box-to-box man. Steven Gerrard did a job when his running power dwindled, just as James Milner could fill in, too, a fine, intelligent footballer but for successive England managers a kind of comfort blanket and all-round fail-safe, the tournament equivalent of tucking your vest into your underpants.
By contrast Dier is being trained to do this and nothing else by a club manager who recognises defensive midfield is a vital end in itself in an era of inverted wingers, deep attackers and ever more condensed space. There are some excellent examples at this tournament. Portugal’s Danilo looks a wonderful player, another who likes to dominate the spaces between the spaces. Kanté continues to play football with the benefit of a small team of tiny little men inside his head feeding him a cine-roll of exactly what’s about to happen in three seconds’ time.
And now England have Dier, one season into his current role, nine caps into his international career, a player who may or may not end up growing into a master of his low-fi craft; but who already looks like a cool, still moment of clarity at the heart of this fun, fevered team.
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