Last week Swansea centre back Alfie Mawson (deservedly) received his first ever call up to the England senior squad. Now, while Swans supporters are jubilant for their fan favourite – his talent being duly recognised by Gareth Southgate – there are others who aren’t so enthused.
Many would’ve preferred to see the likes of Lewis Dunk or Jamaal Lascelles earn the nod from Southgate, with both of their respective sides in Brighton and Newcastle sitting slightly higher in the Premier League table than Mawson’s Swansea.
But here’s the thing, Southgate will have watched all three players and taken them each into real consideration, and what people don’t quite realise is that Mawson is genuinely a better footballer than both Lascelles and Dunk. Hence his selection.
Now, having watched him all season long (and yes, there may be a slight amount of bias creeping in here), on numerous times I’ve stated that he could walk into Arsenal’s starting XI. That’s an argument for another day, but for some reason there’s a need to justify to people Alfie Mawson’s call up, and it’s really quite simple.
On defensive capabilities alone, perhaps Dunk and Lascelles have a shout at being in the squad over our man in question – that’s a maybe, I’d still argue Mawson’s place is more deserving.
But what sets this lovable ginger defender above the rest is what more he brings to the table; and this is what gets him amongst the best centre backs in the league, it’s why he’s linked with a £40m move to one of England’s powerhouses in the summer, and more importantly it’s why Swansea have had such success over the last couple of months under Carlos Carvalhal.
It wasn’t so obvious to see during the first half of the season – a timid Paul Clement side would rarely venture forward, and Mawson (along with the rest of the Swansea back line) would consistently be pinned into his own box.
But along with Carvalhal came a bit of flair – something that suits Mawson down to the ground. A more expressive style, more exciting attacking play. Freedom. It’s been perfect for Alfie. With two centre halves alongside him at the Liberty Stadium, Mawson becomes a bit of a false centre back.
He brings an extra dimension to the attack and this is why Southgate will have noticed him. Since Christmas we’ve seen him in what you could describe as a defensive free role. Picture an Eric Dier who doesn’t turn slower than milk, and can actually play with the ball at his feet. Possibly harsh on Dier, but it’s somewhat true.
Mawson is more than happy to stride forward and give an extra man to the attack – be it as an outlet to relieve pressing defenders, or to genuinely create opportunities. It’s a while back now but cast your mind back to Swansea’s 3-1 win over Arsenal at the end of January. Sam Clucas’ first goal; how did it come about?
Swans win a corner, ping the ball into the box and ultimately lose possession from the set piece. Now at this point, most defenders would charge back to their own goal out of fear of a counter attack. Knowing Federico Fernandez and Mike van der Hoorn would have him covered in that department, Mawson stayed forward.
The 24-year-old stayed in Arsenal’s third, pressed, won the ball back and held onto it for a second – which is definitely out of character for a supposedly clumsy central defender. He waited, and waited a little longer, right up until Clucas’ run between Hector Bellerin and Shkodran Mustafi was ready for the through pass – and he gave it, and Clucas scored.
Now imagine Dunk doing that for Brighton. You can’t, because he’s incapable of it. There are very few that would’ve; it’s very much part of the game of the new age defender. John Terry or Rio Ferdinand would’ve never dreamed of committing themselves that much – but back in their prime, they were only one of a centre back duo, rather than a trio.
The point here is Mawson brings more to a team than those who haven’t been selected. England are boring to watch, and recently Southgate has dabbled with five at the back – but their defence has always been so simple – get it, clear it; job done.
I’m sat here, thinking of Kyle Walker down one flank, Danny Rose down the other; Mawson and John Stones in the middle, sandwiching some limited centre half – you know, the Phil Jones types, or Michael Keane, or someone who just gets the job done with no fuss. THAT defence has something about it.
Some creative nous, some flair – something to get England fans off their bloody seats for the first time in years. That’s what we want at the World Cup. Something out there, something exciting – not Lewis bloody Dunk or Jamaal Lascelles. Not Chris Smalling. Players who offer something more than spanking the ball clear at the first sign of danger.
This seems to be something that Southgate understands, and he sees what Mawson offers and he likes it. It’s incredible to see. Ditch the 4-4-2, find something a bit exotic; give teams a reason to actually fear England.
Mawson will Cruyff turn a striker, he’ll happily go back to his keeper, but will always look for the forward pass first; and if it isn’t on, he’ll push forward himself. He can contribute to goals – he’s scored eight since the start of last season – and you all ought to remember that volley against Leicester last term. Mawson can find that 40 yard pass, he’ll beat anyone in the air, and he’s surprisingly quick at 6’1.
There’s so much to his game, and he’ll only improve from here on out. Getting him into the international setup now could be a master stroke from Southgate. Depressingly, he won’t be in South Wales for much longer – he’s simply too good. But there’s a massive career ahead.