It is nearly three years since Leicester and Watford contested that incredible Championship play-off semi final which ended in last minute heartbreak for the Foxes. That day, Danny Drinkwater shared a bench with Jamie Vardy and on-loan striker Harry Kane. Now, the three feature together in the England squad that take part in the pair of international friendlies against Germany and the Netherlands.
Domestically, Leicester City continue to defy everything we thought we knew about football and sit five points clear atop the Premier League. The form of Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante has captured the headlines, but the performances of Drinkwater have been equally important.
No other English midfielder has made more tackles this season, with his industry and tenacity epitomising the Foxes’ style, but those battling qualities shouldn’t detract from his impressive range of passing. He is always available to take the ball from a team-mate, never one to shy away from that responsibility. Drinkwater has created 37 chances this season, 22 more than Spurs’ midfielder Eric Dier, and he has added goals to his game as well. In fact, as Kante has grabbed the attention, Drinkwater has outperformed him in many areas – creating more chances, registering more assists and playing more key passes than his French team-mate.
It has been quite a turn around for the former United youth player. The hugely experienced, but nevertheless ageing, Esteban Cambiasso limited Drinkwater to just 23 total appearances last season but he has become an integral part of the Foxes’ midfield under Claudio Ranieri. As Leicester clawed their way to safety Drinkwater played just two of the final nine games during the Foxes best run of the season. After Cambiasso left the club in the summer, Swiss international Gokhan Inler was brought in as a high profile replacement. Due to Drinkwater’s form, the former Napoli star has barely had a kick.
Claudio Ranieri has a squad teeming with players with something to prove and the 26-year-old is no different. A product of Manchester United’s famed academy, he played in the same youth side as Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley. However, after failing to make the grade, he was sold to Leicester in 2012 after loan spells at Huddersfield, Watford, Cardiff and Barnsley.
Taking the decision to leave the comfort of Old Trafford; a club he had been immersed in for 13 years, required great bravery, taking a step down the football pyramid in order to gain the experience to climb back up it. Whether he has done enough to make Manchester United regret selling him is probably open for debate, but it is a position that remains a problem for the Red Devils, despite the acquisitions of Fellaini, Herrera, Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger. What the Manchester club will no doubt regret is the measly fee they got for him, reported to be under a million pounds. We have all seen what a few England caps can do for a player’s value.
The midfielder grew up admiring United legend Paul Scholes, quite a player and a career to try and emulate. Scholes asserted several years ago that England players were unwilling to fit a system and personal glory was valued higher than team progression. It is a view repeated by many other pundits about England’s so called ‘golden generation’. Drinkwater’s performance against Manchester City was a perfect example of his unselfish contribution to the team. Manuel Pellegrini’s men like to keep the ball and bide their time for an opening to appear, though against Leicester no such opportunity arose. Yaya Touré and Fabian Delph could not cope with how quickly Drinkwater and his midfield partner Kante closed them down, limiting the space available with such incredible speed that Pellegrini was forced into completely changing his midfield pairing at half-time in an attempt to cope. It didn’t make a jot of difference as Leicester stormed to a 3-1 win.
At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, every team that made the last sixteen or quarter-finals that lacked several attacking superstars, all had players capable of breaking up play and accurately distributing the ball to the more creative match winners in front of them. It may not be fashionable, but it is vital. Roy Hodgson has been moving away from that famous English tradition of shoehorning talented but positionally unsuitable players into starting eleven. Practicality and substance over style could aid the Foxes midfielder’s international claims.
His ascent into the mind of Roy Hodgson has come at just the right time. With Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson and Fabien Delph all suffering various injuries, there are a few spots up for grabs for the Euro’s squad. For too long, England squads have been picked on reputation and loyalty (see Theo Walcott’s inclusion for evidence of that) rather than form and only time will tell whether Drinkwater will appear in France instead of players that have previously been in the England fold.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the Premier League’s natural balance will return next year and the Foxes could win charge to the title, and then have to rebuild their squad this summer, should Europe’s powerhouses continue to circle like vultures around City’s stars. This could be the most high profile stage of Drinkwater’s career. It is an opportunity he must take now – there is a lack of ball playing English midfielders who can stay fit and the pre-Euro internationals may be his best chance not to become the 350th England international with just a solitary cap.
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