England have secured their place at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
With their place at the summer showpiece in the bag, now Gareth Southgate can begin to build on the basics he’s already imparted into his team. He can build on the basic framework that allows England to be a solid outfit, and make them an exciting one. And that means flair.
For the first time since perhaps the 1980’s, England have more than one dazzling attacking talent full of flair. That is both down to the way the game as a whole is changing but also the fact that England have placed a greater emphasis on nurturing that kind of skillful player.
What that means is that Gareth Southgate has a handful of flair players, players who have a certain electricity about the way they play. But which of them is the most exciting? Which player can England fans expect to be their leading light now and going forward? Who’s going to get their bums off the seats so often they’ll end up with a good leg workout after 90 minutes?
Dele is a unique player even amongst the flairful. He plays no. 10 with a unique dynamic energy. He’s not a prolific dribbler – his 93 completed take-ons since the start of 2015/16 is less than N’Golo Kanté over that period, for instance – but he has an undeniable flair.
Dele can pull out the occasional bit of daring dribbling, but mostly he’s about wonderful touches, lovely flicks and audacious efforts at goal. The Spurs man moves into space like he was in the Guardians of the Galaxy, drifting between the bodies of opponents and creating danger with his instinctive touches, shots and goals. Dele will try anything, which is why he’s such an exciting flair player.
Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling is coming into his own at club level, finally evolving his game beyond the incredible highs he reached as a teenager playing for Liverpool in 2013/14. Now he’s showing a more mature and consistent mentality, adding a ruthless edge to his game.
That hasn’t dulled his flair, however. His skills on the ball. Since he debuted in 2011/12, he ranks 15th across Europe’s top five leagues for take-ons completed with an incredible 375. He’s just wonderful to watch, the way he pulls the ball close to him and shifts his bodyweight quicker than you can blink.
Sterling keeps opponents off balance because they never know which way he’s going to twist his body and use an electric burst of speed to blow by them as though they’re not even there. If he has a downside, it’s that he’s not yet figured out how to translate his flair into a central location, only really thriving when played out wide. But he’s still only 22 so has plenty of room to grow.
Lallana is an incredibly skilled player, a wonderfully flairful midfielder. He lacks a burst of pace that the others possess, but his skill with the ball at his feet is wonderful to watch. It’s not just his mad love of Cruyff Turns that draw the eye, although anyone who does Cruyff Turns that often has to be considered, it’s his skill. 196 completed take-ons since 2011/12 for a player with no pace is impressive.
Lallana’s touches and flicks are so regular that you hesitate to label them instinctive. There’s a deliberate nature to the way Lallana functions as an attacking pivot for his team-mates, moving into spaces that invite a quick one-two to catch an opponent off-guard. He does this regularly and does so with flair, allowing other flair players to penetrate opposing lines of defence. Lallana is a flairful facilitator.
As he’s shown in pretty much every single England appearance he’s made, Marcus Rashford isn’t afraid of anything and is a ceaseless force of action and energy. A one man law of thermodynamics, Rashford consistently drives the team forward with the ball at his feet.
Rashford’s dribbling is breathtaking. His timing and use of touch and control can unbalance opponents with staggering regularity. He moves the ball slow, slow, then suddenly very fast in a big move to leave his full-back staring at a cloud of dust like Wile E. Coyote; it’s an incredible sight to see him do it to basically everyone. And even if the kick-and-rush isn’t working, Rashford has the dribbling and close control to skip by a defender in a small space too.
Rashford’s flair is nearly constant. Nothing he does is without flair. Even just standing around, he looks cool and dripping with style. When he actually starts playing? Put on your sunglasses because you’re about to see some blazingly bright brilliance that lifts the entire side. The crowd rise to their feet in anticipation every time he gets the ball, because they know something amazing is on the way.
Not all flairful players are created equal, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is proof that even skill isn’t necessarily enough to strike fear into the hearts of opponents. “The Ox” is a wonderful dribbler, a brilliantly penetrative force with the ball at his feet. He can carry it from defence to attack, using his skill and balance to drift by defenders like they’re not there.
Ox’s flair is in the dribbling, but unlike everyone else on the list his flair is almost useless. Oxlade-Chamberlain is the epitome of “no end product” because he really struggles to, you know, do anything with the ball. His finishing is poor, as is his crossing. He can’t really do anything with the ball.
England have more flair players than they’ve had in forever, but when you look at the likes of Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli, they need to be facilitated by their team-mates. Dele needs to receive good passes into key zones (and he needs a no. 9 to play off) and Sterling has to be out wide and played in a pass-first system with a supportive coach. Meanwhile Oxlade-Chamberlain is just plain bad.
Adam Lallana and Marcus Rashford are the two flair players who can thrive whatever the situation, but Lallana is limited by his lack of pace and given his role as a central midfielder, he is too easy to bypass. Rashford, meanwhile, is a relentlessly flairful player.
Every time Rashford gets the ball, he will excite the crowd. He will thrill his team-mates and devastate his opponents. He doesn’t need an attacking system or a supportive coach, just look at how he thrived under Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho for Manchester United. Even if England are playing terribly (and Rashford’s final ball isn’t necessarily on point) as they did against Slovenia recently, the young wing-forward will still thrill and delight the crowd with his every movement on the pitch.