Ben Chilwell shouldn’t be this assured at 21 – but he's the perfect embodiment of a new England mood
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish I was there in front of the Leicester fans, playing for England,” said Ben Chilwell, days before England’s friendly against Switzerland in September. “I’ve been at Leicester since I was 12 and to play for England at the King Power is obviously going to be my dream. All I can do is keep trying to knock on that door.”
Hours after discussing missing out on a place in Gareth Southgate’s setup, news filtered through: injuries meant that Chilwell had been promoted to the senior squad from the under-21s. In the end he did make his international debut at the King Power, his club home.
Two months later against Croatia, with England given an attacking free-kick in the final minutes and desperate for a winning goal in the UEFA Nations League, Chilwell took responsibility. His curled delivery found Harry Kane, and England found joy. A relevant footnote: Chilwell rarely takes set-pieces for Leicester. But when England needed him, he was ready.
It isn’t supposed to be this easy. Young players are meant to take time to grow, particularly at full-back where you have attacking and defensive responsibilities, and every manager wants you to play in a slightly different way. And yet Chilwell and others take each step up as easily as if they were merely putting one foot in front of the other.
This is one of the tenets of ‘England DNA’, the Football Association’s buzz-phrase that was initially derided but is now vaunted. Having come through England’s U18, U19, U20 and U21 teams, Chilwell was trained not just for age-group tournament victory but for the day when his chance would come in the senior side. He has slotted in perfectly.
There are certain footballers whose age occasionally catches you by surprise. They are either surprisingly aged for their experience – Jesse Lingard at 25 seems as good an example as any – or unfathomably young. With his side parting, wet-look hair and diminutive frame, Chilwell is a throwback footballer. He is still just 21.
Despite his tender years and dramatic rise – he watched England’s World Cup quarter-final this summer from Wireless festival – Chilwell is no stranger to adversity. Having been highly rated by Leicester’s academy coaches from the age of 15 upwards, Chilwell found minutes hard to come by at the King Power thanks to the form of Christian Fuchs. He received a sports car from late owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha for winning the Premier League in 2015/16, but never actually played a league game that season.
Still, others had taken notice: most notably Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, who'd heard good reports from his best friend David Wagner. Chilwell had spent time on loan at Huddersfield that season, impressing in a short eight-game spell. Klopp was keen to sign him that summer, but was unwilling to meet Leicester's £10m asking price for a player yet to make his Premier League debut.
That sounds silly now, but Chilwell's journey hasn't been without roadbumps: even when he broke into the side, his impact was not as pronounced as Leicester had hoped. He started seven league games in 2016/17 and 20 last season, but some supporters felt that his attacking endeavours were eclipsed by issues in defensive positioning.
Chilwell’s breakout match came against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarter-finals, when his overlapping runs in the second leg gave Diego Simeone’s side huge headaches and almost provoked a shock comeback. But consistency was lacking.
Therein lies the greatest difficulty for academy graduates in the Premier League. When your club has comfortably enough money to buy a ready-made replacement in your position, and your manager knows that his own shelf-life will be short, you have to hit the ground at sprinting pace just to stay in the team. That's credit to Claude Puel too, then, who continued to stick by Chilwell knowing that he had a player capable of form like this.
Explaining the left-back's improvements this year is simple: hard work. While team-mates Harry Maguire and Jamie Vardy were in Russia, Chilwell had employed a personal trainer near his home in Milton Keynes and was embarking on a high-intensity programme to improve his fitness still further. In interviews, he described running for three weeks during the heat of June.
No longer would he be caught out of position upfield. No longer would he lack the energy to drive and drive again. It's no coincidence that Chilwell hasn't missed a minute of Premier League football this season, and established himself in the England team. Now comes the predictable links to bigger clubs. Arsenal need a left-back, and Chilwell is high on their list – although he only signed a new contract to 2024 in late October, so the Gunners’ ambitions may be misplaced.
Chilwell might just be the perfect embodiment of a new England mood.
He came through a Premier League academy and found minutes hard to come by. He travelled along the conveyor belt of England’s youth teams and came out as a rounded, grounded player and person. His technical ability is pronounced given his age. He dealt with adversity by resolving to work harder and longer. He has the maturity of a 26-year-old in the body of someone five years younger.
But, most importantly, when given his chance with club and country, Chilwell has taken it with both hands. There is a confidence to England’s young talents – think James Maddison, Jadon Sancho, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Phil Foden and more – that belies their inexperience and the pressure that is placed on each performance. That is the key to thriving in the uber-competitive world of the Premier League and beyond.