Eric Dier is now the first name on England’s teamsheet. His punted free kick may not have been enough to ensure England victory against Russia in their Group B curtainraiser, but Eric Dier’s commanding performance at the Véledrome offered a timely reminder of his importance to the Three Lions.
Having toiled so long without a serviceable holding midfielder – an ageing Steven Gerrard was deployed in the role two years ago in Brazil – English fans often found themselves floating envious glances in the direction of their European neighbours. It seems fitting, therefore, that England’s answer to Sergio Busquets was schooled in the Iberian Peninsula.
It was Euro 2004 that took Dier to Portugal as a child (his mother found employment as an administrator at the tournament). And the decade he spent at Sporting’s famed youth academy – where Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo emerged before him – is evident in the way he plays.
Originally a centre-back, Dier was asked to play in a more advanced role after joining Tottenham in the summer of 2014. His club manager Mauricio Pochettino had identified in the young Englishman the qualities demanded of a modern defensive midfielder: positional sense, discipline, a crunching tackle.
But Dier also has plenty to offer in possession. Saturday’s teamsheet suggested the burden for creativity would largely be shouldered by his Spurs teammate Dele Alli and captain Wayne Rooney, yet it was frequently Dier’s sharp passing that cut through the resilient Russian midfield.
While Rooney the midfielder has become renowned for his surging diagonal balls, lofted high into the path of forward runners out on the wings, Dier has a picked up a useful habit of passing his way through a narrow corridor of opposition players. The 22-year-old has long shown he is not afraid of putting his body in harm’s way, but he also has the bravery to play forward where others would look for a square ball.
Led by their six foot five striker Artyom Dzyuba, Russia practised a brand of direct football that was once the preserve of the Three Lions. In tournaments past, England centre-backs have drawn the ire of fans for hitting hopeful long balls, but in Eric Dier, they have found a midfielder generous enough to take over the responsibility for playing out from the back.
Always an outlet, always in the right place. There is a maturity to Dier’s game by which you can’t fail to be impressed – particularly as he shields a sketchy back four comprised in part by his adventurous club full-backs Kyle Walker and Danny Rose.
Tottenham’s visit to Stamford Bridge last month showed that Dier still has much to learn – like his midfield partner Alli, the former Sporting man is not averse to a rash challenge or three – but you get the impression Pochettino is the right coach to help iron out any mistakes. In football, there are no certainties, but only a fool would bet against Dier becoming a permanent fixture in the Three Lions’ starting eleven.