Adam Wharton can see the bigger picture – a Euro 2024 spot is within his grasp

Adam Wharton in action for England

Will Adam Wharton be the late ‘bolter’ into the England squad for Euro 2024? We thought it might be Kobbie Mainoo but, actually, it is entirely possible that both young midfielders will make it into the final 26-man selection.

Rarely has Gareth Southgate been as effusive in his praise of a player – especially one as relatively inexperienced as Wharton – as he was after the 20-year-old’s international debut in the 3-0 warm-up win over Bosnia and Herzegovina at St James’ Park on Monday.

“He is just pretty unflappable,” Southgate said, after bringing Wharton on just after the hour as one of five pre-planned substitutions.

“That ability to receive and see a picture early isn’t something you should underestimate.”

Gareth Southgate, chats with Adam Wharton
Gareth Southgate been as effusive in his praise of Wharton - Getty Images/Eddie Keogh

The key phrase – “see the picture” – is one that Southgate has used frequently in the past few days when it comes to discussing Wharton, and its importance should not be underestimated.

Listen to what the England manager is saying.

England have been crying out for such midfielders ever since Southgate took over in 2016 and for years before that. He identified the dearth in his role as the Football Association’s head of elite development when he worked closely with Sir Trevor Brooking to improve standards of youth football and coaching. Southgate has been evangelical about it ever since, bemoaning the lack of a ‘midfield controller’ such as Croatia’s Luka Modric, Germany’s Toni Kroos or Italy’s Jorginho and Marco Verratti.

“There’s how we would have liked to play for seven or eight years and how we’ve tried to get the best out of the players that we’ve got,” Southgate said.

“Whether that’s been three at the back or the various other formations we’ve played. When you have 10s that can link the game or midfield players that can play forward... but of course, you immediately start to think of Kroos and Modric and those types. They’ve been a decade or more of how to control the rhythm of a game.

“That’s a step beyond where we’re at with Wharton and Mainoo. They’re really tender in their development. They’re doing really well and we’re excited about working with them but we’ve got to be realistic about what that’s going to look like in terms of controlling the tempo at the highest possible level, which is also a step that none of them have seen yet.”

Nevertheless, Wharton is an unusual English player and it is remarkable to think that as recently as Boxing Day he was being booked as he turned out for Blackburn Rovers against Huddersfield Town in the Championship. Now he is being talked about as pushing for a Euro 2024 place.

Adam Wharton playing for Blackburn
As recently as Boxing Day, Wharton was playing for Blackburn - Getty Images/Dave Howarth

It was also remarkable that Crystal Palace faced such little competition when they signed him for £18 million – there will be add-ons once he makes a competitive start for England – in the January transfer window and there must be inquests going on at other clubs and their scouting departments who were so clearly caught out.

Wharton took to Premier League football immediately and was instrumental in Palace’s late-season surge that propelled them to a 10th-placed finish, equalling their best-ever season, and earning him a spot in Southgate’s provisional 33-man squad.

When Wharton arrived at Palace he had played just 44 Championship games, having made his debut only in August 2022. Since then he has added 16 Premier League appearances – still obviously a small sample size – and now an international cap and, maybe, much more.

“Really pleased with what he has done,” Southgate said, after watching Wharton come on against Bosnia in the deep-lying midfield playmaker role and complete all 36 of his passes, including two key passes, and create chances. In fact, since Opta started compiling such data in 2007 Wharton is the only midfielder to attempt more than 30 passes and complete every one on his England debut.

Thrillingly, he wants to play the ball forward and it was noticeable how the other England players reacted when he was on the ball. They were making runs for him, with Wharton wanting to take possession in tight spaces and use his passing range.

In fairness, it must also be factored in that the game was opening up by then and England were on the front foot having just gone ahead through Cole Palmer’s penalty, when Wharton came on. There was less pressure from Bosnia.

But Palace manager Oliver Glasner talks of his “preorientation” – an ability to know his pass even before he receives the ball. This is what Southgate means when he describes it as seeing “the picture” and it is – obviously – a rare and precious quality to possess, especially in the break-neck speed of modern football.

Wharton is also tall and good in the air. Physically he looks the part – a bonus in the Premier League, of course – and will only develop more. Nicknamed “the Wilpshire Pirlo” – with Italy’s Andrea Pirlo a prime example of the kind of midfielder English football struggles to produce – after the Lancashire village north of Blackburn in which his family lives, he has a lot to live up to. But the signs are promising.

“He’s a very calm boy, he seems to have taken everything in his stride when you think of what the last year has been,” Southgate said.

Wharton’s progress has been astonishing. Southgate was there at Selhurst Park to watch him in the 4-0 victory over Manchester United on May 6. His assistant Steve Holland attended the final-day 5-0 demolition of Aston Villa, with Wharton one of four Palace players to make the enlarged initial squad.

It felt then that his call-up was very much in the category of ‘one for the future’ and Southgate has revealed that he spoke to the five uncapped players he included to tell them it was unlikely they would make his final cut. That was expected and good management.

But he also added that things could change, not least through injury, and chances could be seized. Whether Wharton makes the plane on Monday remains to be seen but he has suddenly given himself a chance and it would be no surprise if he featured against Iceland – as Mainoo will – during Friday’s final friendly game at Wembley before the squad is finalised by midnight.