England

Dunk's call-up encapsulates England's new identity

 • by Mark Thompson
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Not only was Lewis Dunk a back-up for the England squad but he missed the phone call that told him he’d been selected to replace the injured James Tarkowski.

“It was Sunday morning,” Dunk told the press. “I woke up to a missed call from the manager.

“I was thinking, ‘What’s he ringing for?’ On the voicemail it said, ‘Call me back’. I rang him back and he told me the good news.”

It’s not a story Hollywood will be interested in but it’s still nice all the same. Especially as sometimes it’s easy to get wrapped up in the competitive nature of international football and forget what it means to the people involved.

“To finally get recognition and be called into the national team is the best thing that has happened to me,” Dunk added.

England are nice now

The England men’s national team, as a whole, is ‘nice’ too. Both the players and the manager are young and likeable.

And Gareth Southgate, for this squad in particular, has rewarded those who have been regulars for their club sides, whoever they may be.

No more getting into the squad just because a player on the fringes of one of the Champions League sides. No, a call-up has to be earned the old-fashioned way.

Dunk is just the latest in a string of these kind of players. His consistency for Brighton has been incredible over the last four seasons. From 2014/15 to 2017/18, Dunk started 156 of Brighton’s 176 league games, racking up 13,875 minutes of first-team football, not to mention cup games as well.

The player that Dunk is replacing, Tarkowski is another to gain a call-up after performing well as a first-team regular at an unfashionable club, as is hero of the World Cup Harry Maguire.

It’s a similar message with the younger players who Southgate has selected too, with Mason Mount and Jadon Sancho. Even if you’re in the far, far away lands of Germany or the Championship, the Three Lions set-up will still see that you’re doing good work.

A change in identity

But Dunk’s call-up symbolises a change in England’s identity in another way as well.

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There was a time when you couldn’t move for elite English central defenders. Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Jamie Carragher, Sol Campbell, Ledley King (when fit)…

Styles of football have changed but any of these five would walk into the current England line-up.

Dunk being selected for England is a good story for how working hard for a smaller club can still yield results, but he’s the latest in an ever-growing line of English centre-backs that have been in or around the England squad for several months without taking that next step.

John Stones, a standby for the 2014 World Cup squad, represents the most regular squad pick in the Three Lions’ central defence.

Around him, the following have flowed though the England starting XI: Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Michael Keane, Tarkowski, Maguire, Alfie Mawson (named in a pre-World Cup squad but not actually capped), Calum Chambers, and now Dunk.

It’s not an incredibly inspiring list, and doesn’t mention the ageing former-starters Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka. Joe Gomez hasn’t yet spent enough time at centre-back to see whether he could save the situation, but the early signs have been promising.

Instead, all of the most exciting talent coming through the England ranks, ones who look like they might genuinely be world class, are midfielders or attackers. Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Sancho, Phil Foden – the new England is, for the most part, technically skilled, positionally smart, but not defenders.

Is back three in our DNA?

The previous list of centre-backs would be fine, and a good level of depth, if there was a reliably solid, A-tier defensive central defender who England could call upon.

Several of them – Stones, Smalling, Jones, Maguire, Keane – would form a formidable partnership if they had a Ferdinand or a Terry alongside them.

For one reason or another, none of them are quite there, which must surely have been a large part of the thinking behind England moving to a back three instead of a back four.

Would Dunk fit into that back three, if needed? Probably. He’s capable enough defensively and good enough on the ball, assuming that the rest of the team can support him.

If you look to the Sterlings, the Fodens and the Sanchos then the work the FA have done in implementing an ‘ England DNA’ seems to have worked.

But glance at the Dunks, the Mawsons, the Tarkowskis and, nice as it is, you have to wonder a little.

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