The next Toni Kroos? How Adam Wharton can become the solution to England’s midfield headache

The Three Lions have struggled for balance in midfield, with Gareth Southgate’s ‘experiment’ with Trent Alexander-Arnold yet to come off, but the Crystal Palace star provides an intriguing option at Euro 2024

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Sunday 23 June 2024 08:40 BST
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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There was a moment at the start of the month when Gareth Southgate considered the type of player England have not had during his reign, considered the future of their midfield, in the youthful friends of Adam Wharton and Kobbie Mainoo, and reached for the sort of comparison that can apply pressure. He namechecked Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. And if there was a caveat, saying they lacked the experience of one of the game’s most decorated double acts, it was praise nonetheless.

There was a moment earlier in the week when Southgate invited rather more mockery, saying England lacked a natural replacement for Kalvin Phillips. For Wharton, a 20-year-old who began the year playing in the Championship for Blackburn and who could be parachuted into England's failing midfield in Euro 2024, the task may be to emulate Real Madrid’s pass masters, but also the more prosaic talents of the Manchester City misfit.

No pressure there, then. Not that Wharton seems to feel any. He approaches a conversation in a thoughtful way that mirrors his style of play. He brings quiet confidence but also modesty. “I don’t necessarily look at myself being special or anything like that,” he said. “It’s just the way I play.”

Yet the rarity of a particularly unEnglish style of passer means Southgate, like his predecessors, has been searching for his Special One in the centre of the pitch, a midfielder who can make possession football look simple.

“If you’ve got a lot of the ball you need someone who is calm, composed and always willing to get on it,” said Wharton. “If I was to describe my game I would just say ‘it’s pretty simple but effective’. I’ve been playing a lot deeper in the midfield in the Premier League. If you’ve got great players in attack, like the Bellinghams, the Fodens, then you have to get them in the pockets.”

It is why he admires Rodri, who he feels is the best in the world at being the unspectacular metronome. “He is not dribbling past five players; you don’t need to do that in that position. He just gets it, gives it, keeps the ball moving, moves the opposition and that’s when gaps come that you can play into the creative players.”

He has used Euro 2024 as a learning experience. “When I watch good players you naturally take little bits,” he said. “You might see them do a certain movement or make a run that creates space and you might think, ‘when I am in that position, I might try that’.” So there was an education the day after England’s draw with Denmark furthered the case for midfield change. He watched France’s stalemate with the Netherlands. “I thought there were a few movements from [N’Golo] Kante off the ball. Nothing much but just short, sharp off players to receive the ball.”

Wharton started the season in the Championship with Blackburn Rovers
Wharton started the season in the Championship with Blackburn Rovers (The FA via Getty Images)

Kante is famously a workaholic. Wharton’s skills on the ball should not deflect from his work rate off it: he covered more than 11km when Crystal Palace beat Liverpool at Anfield. Trent Alexander-Arnold was on the losing side that day. Now he could lose his place in England’s starting 11, even though Wharton loyally said he felt the reinvented right-back played well against Denmark.

And yet if part of Southgate covets a Kroos, part of him wants the dependability of the Phillips of old. “You look at the last Euros and Kalvin was one of the best players for England and we got to the final. If there was someone like that playing at this tournament, you'd be saying the same thing,” said Wharton. He is no Phillips doppelganger. “There's probably similarities in where we play and certain attributes but there's obviously going to be things he's better than me and I'm better than him at,” he reflected.

Adam Wharton could provide a solution to England’s midfield problems
Adam Wharton could provide a solution to England’s midfield problems (The FA via Getty Images)

He would not claim to be better at Kroos and Modric, the playmakers supreme, in any respect, but was flattered he and Mainoo were mentioned in the same sentence. “Hopefully we can be like that,” he said. “I do takes bits of their game to help mine because they're top players who have had great careers. I'll try and get as many medals and trophies as them. Even watching them, especially in the first game [against Scotland] I thought Kroos pretty much controlled the game: dropping deep, playing out and playing it forward to players they had in attack. That's where they caused a lot of damage.”

Modric spent some of his younger days as more of a No 10 before being shifted back. So did Wharton who was a left-back or left-sided midfielder in the Under-8s, but more of a central attacker after that. “I was a lot smaller,” he said. “I had a low centre of gravity, I liked to get in between the lines, being creative. From 18, I dropped back a bit and have been there ever since. Probably I get more involved in the game. When you are playing in the 10, it can be very frustrating because you don’t see as much of the ball but when you do get it, it is a lot more effective.”

The Palace midfielder is confident he can deliver on the big stage
The Palace midfielder is confident he can deliver on the big stage (REUTERS)

That is the effect England want: to have the ball, to keep it, to move it. Can Wharton be the player they have missed? He is unfazed by the weight of expectation if he does get a go. He added: “If I think I can’t handle this, then what am I doing here?”

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