If it all comes down to penalties once again, Gareth Southgate won’t be able to look to the same towering source of assurance this summer.
Eric Dier brought that three years ago, calmly dispatching that unforgettable spot kick against Colombia at Moscow’s Spartak Stadium to put England in the World Cup quarter-final, after Jordan Pickford’s brilliant save from Carlos Bacca.
Dier had been practising the skill since he was a 10-year-old at Sporting Lisbon, where penalties were used at the end of training to settle which kids would have to go and pick up all the balls.
Eric Dier scored the decisive penalty when England defeated Colombia in the 2018 World Cup
Dier’s successful spot-kick at the Spartak Stadium sent England into the quarter-final
Dier has been valued by Gareth Southgate but didn’t even make the provisional Euro 2020 side
That night in the Russian capital seemed a redemptive one for Dier, who had not been through his greatest period of games for England and only arrived as a late substitute to steady the ship.
Little did he know that a brutal few years lay ahead. Mauricio Pochettino, who brought him to Tottenham, would be gone within 12 months or so. In came Jose Mourinho and decline on every level. Now, Dier has failed to make the cut for Southgate’s Euros squad.
His loss is England’s loss because he brings the kind of versatility and flexibility that led some to believe he just might make the cut for Southgate, who could have toggled him between defence and midfield.
The relentless football conversation moves on, of course, to the pressing questions of Harry Maguire’s fitness and Trent Alexander Arnold’s worthiness as a member of the final squad. But Dier brings the self-reflection and humility that make you hope he can find a way back from this.
The 2016 Euros were the high-tide mark of his career, in many ways, despite England’s dismal tournament and desultory exit to Iceland. He performed well in a holding midfield role, leading to Pochettino fielding an inquiry from Manchester United at the end of the summer. ‘No way,’ was the Argentine’s response.
Dier has struggled to produce his finest form in what has been a difficult season at Tottenham
But Dier’s versatility meant many thought he would be included by Southgate for Euro 2020
What strikes you about Pochettino’s description of those days is how receptive Dier was to criticism. Pochettino casually mentioned to him after one morning training session that he’d seen a drop-off in his performances. Dier approached him in the afternoon and asked if they could talk some more.
Pochettino showed him videos from training to illustrate the point. Dier went back to work. Within weeks he was back to his best, anchoring central defence with Jan Vertonghen.
Pochettino always seemed alert to any drop-off in Dier. In ‘Brave New World’, the book about his Spurs methods co-written with Guillem Ballague, he describes spending an entire week talking to Dier about what was happening with his game, after things dipped a little in 2017.
The manager wrote out a table for Dier, with the headings ‘Good’, ‘Very Good’, ‘Excellent’ and ‘Unique.’ He listed Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the fourth one, before asking Dier where he saw himself. ‘Very Good,’ Dier replied.
‘Yes, that’s where you are,’ Pochettino replied. ‘It’s only a short trip to get to Excellent.’ Part of the problem for Dier has been deciding what player he views himself as, positionally. He views himself as a defensive midfielder. Pochettino, who initially played him as a full back, always saw him as a defender.
The real tragedy for Dier was Pochettino’s departure and Mourinho’s arrival, because the so-called Special One does not go in for quiet chats and tabulated charts.
The changing of the guard at Tottenham coincided with the season just past being Dier’s most difficult in football, with his errors directly contributing to a number of goals conceded. And rather than look to improve him, Mourinho characteristically chose to publicly declare the player had lacked confidence all season.
Dier has struggled in the aftermath of Mauricio Pochettino’s departure from Tottenham
Dier had a difficult season at Tottenham under the guidance of the now axed Jose Mourinho
Dier was indignant about this. ‘Confidence-wise I don’t feel I have been in a bad place all season,’ he said. So Mourinho twisted the knife yet further. ‘I prefer that I’m wrong,’ he responded to say. ‘I prefer that it has nothing to do with a little bit of low confidence. I prefer players with big personalities.’ Classic, destructive Mourinho.
Dier has not become a bad player across the course of one season. At only 27 and as one of the most versatile players in England’s ranks, his international career is not over. He just needs the kind of help that the best managers can bring.
Which is why Tottenham’s next managerial appointment matters vastly more than trying to keep Harry Kane against his wishes. It is in England’s interests, as well as Dier’s, that Spurs make the right choice.