What must Fikayo Tomori have been thinking on Friday night in Milan? Watching on as England lost their third match from five, an unused substitute in his home ground. A stadium that has become his castle as his arrival has coincided with a glorious period in AC Milan’s recent history.
Not only this, but the opposition were Italy. They were players that Tomori faces weekly in Serie A, in a setting that he is unphased and undaunted by.
Instead, Tomori sat and watched. A laboured 1-0 defeat to a depleted and understrength Azzurri that aren’t even going to the 2022 World Cup in six weeks’ time.
If ever there was a time for Tomori to show what he can do, this was it. England’s problems aren’t necessarily at centre-back; it is their painfully slow and predictable work in the other half that yielded groans from the travelling fans stationed high in the Stadio San Siro’s upper tiers.
Tomori in Southgate’s blind-spot
The three chosen that night were Kyle Walker, Eric Dier, and Harry Maguire. None can be blamed especially for the result, and all three did little wrong. However, doing ‘little wring’ can surely no longer be the benchmark for a national team with trophy-lifting ambitions?
Behind the trio that started lie Tomori, John Stones, Ben White and Marc Guehi. Stones is almost a guaranteed starter in Qatar, but the other three are an exciting and young crop, each already playing in a variety of systems and geographical locations to further their development.
None more so than Tomori. Since leaving Chelsea for Milan on loan in January 2021, Tomori has played over 70 times across Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League campaigns. In this time, he has displaced the club captain Alessio Romagnoli to the point that the Italian has since left to find more game time. Milan finished second in Tomori’s first half-season and, upon making his deal permanent in summer 2021, they went on to win their first Scudetto in a decade.
Tomori was no mere cog in these achievements. His arrival brought added quality and depth to the centre-back ranks and was soon undroppable despite his tender age and lack of experience in a completely new country.
Few players within this already beloved Milan side have endeared themselves to the fans like Tomori has. From attempting interviews in Italian, to assuming the mantle of senior centre-back alongside the even younger Pierre Kalulu, to his impressive control and calm on the pitch, Tomori’s name is chanted and cheered with gumption few could have imagined.
Yet Gareth Southgate refuses to listen. Having seen a young centre-back leave his comfort zone to move country and adapt to a new culture, as well as improve and develop as one of the better defenders in Serie A, the England manager is still not convinced enough to give Tomori his opportunity.
It begs the question; what is the incentive for young players to take such a step to foreign shores? One would imagine that such feats of personality (as well as on-field achievement) would be viewed glowingly in the world of international football where the individual’s character and willingness to quickly mould into a team environment is so crucial.
Even if Southgate had his reservations about Tomori, Friday night was the ideal time to test his mettle. In a cauldron-like environment that many would buckle under, Tomori had the experience of playing and thriving at San Siro. There’s also the matter of testing resources. Southgate is aware of what the likes of Maguire, Stones, Walker and Conor Coady can offer having selected them so faithfully for the last three years. What would have been the possibly negative in giving Tomori an opportunity in such a match?
Why doesn’t Southgate select Tomori for England?
This is before we get to what Tomori brings in a football sense. The 24-year-old is right-footed, but predominantly plays as a left centre-back and is used to covering the left channel and playing off his weaker foot. When Theo Hernandez is the left-back in your side, you better have the whereabouts, pace and spatial awareness to read the chasms of space left behind by the Frenchman’s marauding runs.
With Southgate wedded to a three-at-the-back system, Tomori’s experience as playing towards the left would be a massive problem solver. Harry Maguire has been England’s go-to player in the left centre-back role, but his publicly poor form and decline make picking the Manchester United captain a hard one to accept. Especially when it sees a player of Tomori’s talent left out in the cold.
Tomori’s recovery pace and speed running towards his own goal also would allow England, should Southgate dare try it, to play with a back four and impose on teams with a higher line. Between he and John Stones, opposition teams would struggle to beat either centre-back in a foot race, and England would benefit in an attacking capacity through being able to play far closer to the final third.
The one area of his game he can develop further is in his ball-playing, but Tomori is rarely asked to be expansive in possession at club level. He is secure and tidy, but perhaps lacks carrying capability or line-splitting distribution. If this were the reason for his omission, and Southgate preferred an elite distributor in his centre-back line then few could dispute the call. Ben White for example is an elite passer and carrier, and there would plausibly be more optimism were it White selected ahead of Tomori. But he too is yet to be tested in the role sufficiently for his country.
What it will take for Tomori (or White for that matter) to displace Maguire remains to be seen, given the latter’s horrendous season form. One can only imagine how frustrating it must be for Fikayo Tomori, and how draining the worry of whether his name will even make the final squad will be.
In leaving England for Italy and playing a crucial role in winning the Serie A title last season, this is not a concern Tomori deserves to feel.