Michael Cox: Who should play in defensive midfield for England?
Three Lions boss Roy Hodgson is in a peculiar position ahead of this summer's European Championship finals in France.
His England side qualified with a perfect 100% record, and yet there are question marks about almost every position in the side.
Perhaps only Joe Hart and Chris Smalling can be certain of starting England's opening game – everywhere else, there's plenty of competition for places.
Where there’s (not) a Wil
In truth, England never seem entirely sure what they want from that position
One of the most intriguing situations is in the defensive midfield role. This is a position where England have struggled over the past decade, often overlooking intelligent players in the mould of Owen Hargreaves and Michael Carrick, or turning to underwhelming options like Scott Parker and Gareth Barry. In truth, England never seem entirely sure what they want from that position.
Something similar might be happening at the moment. Hodgson's favoured option throughout qualification was Arsenal's Jack Wilshere, who adjusted to an unfamiliar position at the base of a midfield trio.
Of course, a technical ball player is more likely to thrive against weak opposition than against good sides, but Wilshere's positional discipline was nevertheless impressive. He was outstanding in the 3-2 away win against Slovenia last summer, scoring two goals to complete a memorable turnaround. Sadly, that was his last competitive game for either club or country – and he's no longer a realistic option in France.
Looking for Eric
Dier will screen the defence more effectively, and is a prolific tackler. He'll need to be careful in terms of discipline, though
In his place, the obvious choice is Eric Dier. He's also relatively new to the holding role, but has made the opposite switch from Wilshere – moving higher up the pitch rather than dropping deep.
Dier is a completely different type of player – a pure defensive midfielder rather than a deep-lying playmaker capable of spraying incisive passes into attack.
That might suit England better against a higher standard of opposition, but it changes the feel of the midfield zone.
It means England will require their other midfielders to contribute more in terms of passing, rather than covering ground, as was the case when Wilshere played at the base of a diamond, pulling the strings.
Dier will screen the defence more effectively, and is a prolific tackler. He'll need to be careful in terms of discipline, though – he's collected nine bookings with Spurs this season, and has been slightly fortunate not to collect a second yellow on a couple of occasions, notably in the recent derby draw against Arsenal.
At a tournament where referees will be stricter than in the Premier League, and where two bookings in separate games could incur a one-match suspension, he'll need to be careful.
His performance in Tottenham's comprehensive 3-0 victory over Bournemouth last weekend showed lots of defensive actions across the field, and plenty of solid, reliable balls out towards the flanks.
Because Leicester get the ball forward so quickly, he's simply unaccustomed to orchestrating the play in the manner he'll need to for England
The alternative option is Danny Drinkwater, who is enjoying a superb campaign deep in Leicester's midfield alongside N'Golo Kante. Deservedly awarded his first call-up this week, Hodgson is likely to hand him an opportunity to impress.
However, it remains to be seen whether he's a viable option for the holding role in a three-man midfield. With Leicester he covers a huge amount of ground, but is working in the centre of an extremely well-organised, compact side, and next to a superior player in a midfield partnership.
This would be a different role entirely, and Drinkwater is unlikely to be handed the freedom to burst forward into attack as he's enjoyed with Leicester. It's interesting to look at the positions of his passes, usually in extremely attacking positions, despite being a defensive midfielder. Because Leicester get the ball forward so quickly, he's simply unaccustomed to orchestrating the play in the manner he'll need to for England.
If Drinkwater performs well he'll be selected ahead of Carrick for the Euros – if not, the Manchester United man will earn a reprieve
The final option for that holding role – and always something of an afterthought in England terms – is Michael Carrick.
It's always slightly difficult to work out what Carrick's status in the England manager's thinking is, but ahead of Hodgson's squad announcement, he phoned the Manchester United man to explain the decision to omit him, and include Drinkwater.
This presumably means he wants to give Drinkwater a chance to impress, but knows what Carrick is capable of and remains in his thoughts.
His weekend display in the derby win against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium was classic Carrick – relatively few defensive actions, but an abundance of diagonal balls out towards the wingers.
It feels like Hodgson will hand Dier a start in England's first game against Germany, before giving Drinkwater the chance to impress against Holland next week. If Drinkwater performs well he'll be selected ahead of Carrick for the Euros – if not, the Manchester United man will earn a reprieve.
The elephant in the room is Wilshere. Reports suggest Hodgson would take Wilshere if he proves his fitness before the end of the season, but it's currently extremely difficult to imagine him being capable of playing seven games in the space of a month, which should be England's target. When combined with the fact he'd change the balance of England's midfield entirely, it's tough to make a case for his inclusion.
Dier, the most defensive-minded of England's options in that role, seems the logical choice to allow attacking players more freedom.