Adam Wharton barging his way into England’s Euro 2024 plans: Crystal Palace star earning comparisons with Andrea Pirlo and Toni Kroos already

With his rolled-down socks, slight frame and sharp mind, Adam Wharton is the understated wildcard making a big impression on Gareth Southgate.

None of that will surprise Bayern Munich, who had designs on hijacking Crystal Palace’s swoop for the young midfielder from Blackburn in January.

Thankfully for Palace, Bayern moved too late, although the Germans’ interest remains. They aren’t the only ones monitoring the talented 20-year-old from Lancashire who has taken the Premier League by storm. That’s the unfortunate reality for clubs the size of Palace. ‘We have to enjoy him while we can,’ said one Eagles source.

Indeed, no sooner had Wharton arrived at Palace than work on identifying his eventual replacement began. There’s an acknowledgement that their latest unearthed gem is destined for bigger and better things, although the way Palace finished the season under Oliver Glasner, who’s to say he can’t fulfil his ambitions in south London?

Palace have proven to be ahead of the curve in terms of spotting untapped talent: Michael Olise, Marc Guehi and Eberechi Eze have all been plucked from relative obscurity. The expectation is that their latest discovery will be the best of the lot.

Crystal Palace youngster Adam Wharton made his England debut in the 3-0 win over Bosnia

The midfielder was handed his maiden cap by Three Lions boss Gareth Southgate on Tuesday

The midfielder was handed his maiden cap by Three Lions boss Gareth Southgate on Tuesday

There is a misconception that Wharton’s abilities were missed by rivals. Everton, Brighton, West Ham and Tottenham all showed interest in the midfielder over the past 18 months. Alan Irvine, during his time as a Hammers consultant, is understood to have been a particularly big fan.

It is true, however, that in a world of data-led recruitment, Wharton’s potential went under the radar for a number of sides. His numbers were good, but didn’t necessarily leap out at data analysts. ‘There are some things data can’t tell you, Wharton is the prime example of that,’ explains one recruitment specialist.

Wharton’s emergence should, then, be viewed as a triumph for old-fashioned scouting. Palace, and sporting director Dougie Freedman, put in the hard yards. 

Their interest started in September 2022 during an Under 21s match between Tottenham and Blackburn.

Another player was in Palace’s sights that day, but their representative departed drooling over Wharton. One of the things that caught the eye was his constant scanning of the field before receiving a pass, allowing him to visualise his options before the ball arrived at his feet.

His intelligence in finding space off the ball with a view to positioning himself into areas where he could make penetrating passes also impressed.

Technically he was two-footed, his weight of pass was on point —all of which was harnessed by an awareness that defied his teenage years. The moment of truth came in November 2023 when Blackburn travelled to Chelsea for a Carabao Cup tie. Rovers lost, but Wharton more than held his own against Conor Gallagher, who is highly rated at Selhurst Park. The rest is history.

Two months later, Freedman closed the deal as Palace forked out £18million, plus a further £4m in performance-related add-ons, to sign him from Blackburn. The vast majority of that £4m is linked to Premier League achievements, though there are small financial rewards for Rovers if Wharton hits international targets.

In convincing Wharton to sign, Freedman mapped out a meticulous progression plan — each stage of his development at Palace explained in great detail. You’d imagine they’ll have to reset those targets given how rapidly his career has accelerated.

The 20-year-old made 15 starts in the Premier League after his signing from Blackburn in January

The 20-year-old made 15 starts in the Premier League after his signing from Blackburn in January

Crystal Palace sporting director Dougie Freedman put in the hard yards to nap Wharton from Blackburn Rovers

Crystal Palace sporting director Dougie Freedman put in the hard yards to nap Wharton from Blackburn Rovers

Andrea Pirlo was known for his poise and incredible passing range during his glittering career

Toni Kroos lifted the Champions League for the sixth time earlier this month

Wharton has already received comparisons to two of the finest midfielders of this century. Pctured: Andrea Pirlo (left) and Toni Kroos (right) 

What Palace first saw all those months ago, England are witnessing now. Wharton’s brief cameo as he made his debut against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Monday struck a chord. He was poised and composed in the middle, exhibiting the conductor-style qualities Southgate has yearned for.

Think Andrea Pirlo. Think Toni Kroos. Think Luka Modric. ‘We don’t have a midfield organiser with the ball, in my lifetime we’ve rarely produced that type of player in England — we’ve got different profiles of No 6s,’ Southgate said in March.

One and two-touch passing, finding space, manoeuvring out of tight areas all locked in with exemplary execution — Wharton’s got the lot. He appears sleek and slender, but those who work with Wharton daily liken his strength to that of David Batty or James Milner. He is deceptively powerful. And, at 6ft 1in, deceptively tall.

He has the work ethic to go with his natural talents, too. He covered the most ground of any player in Palace’s win at Liverpool last season. But it is his in-game intelligence, an innate ability to be in the right place at the right time to make vital interceptions, that has had Glasner purring. On Monday, Wharton completed all 36 passes, becoming the only midfielder to attempt 30 or more on his England debut and nail every one. All in half an hour.

Yet it is the youngster’s persistence in moving the ball forward that has really caught Southgate’s eye. It’s not possession for possession’s sake, there’s always a purpose with the ball at his feet. The sort of purpose Southgate feels his team naturally lacks.

When Wharton was named in England’s provisional 33-man squad last month, the general expectation was he would not make the final 26. There remained hints on Monday night that Southgate may still not take him. But who could blame Southgate for having second thoughts after Wharton’s performance in Newcastle?

‘We have been really impressed,’ Southgate said of Wharton after the game. ‘He is a very calm boy, he seems to have taken everything in his stride. When you talk to him, he is pretty unflappable, as he was tonight. That ability to receive and see a picture early isn’t something you should underestimate.’

It is clear Wharton represents England’s future. But does he represent their present?

Southgate praised Wharton's 30-minute cameo against Bosnia at St James' Park on Monday night

Southgate praised Wharton’s 30-minute cameo against Bosnia at St James’ Park on Monday night

Southgate has options. Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham, who is expected to play further forward in Germany, are among the first names on the team-sheet. But the identity of who plays next to Rice deeper in midfield remains a debate. 

On Monday, Trent Alexander-Arnold provided further evidence that he is starting to familiarise himself with the central midfield role Southgate is considering him for.

His goal against Bosnia was sumptuous, yet it was his ability to maintain possession and pass forward with accuracy that was the most impressive aspect of his performance. But there remains an element of mystery regarding the Alexander-Arnold midfield experiment. Doing it against Bosnia is one thing. Doing it in a major tournament is something else entirely.

Asked whether he worries about playing Alexander-Arnold, a right back for Liverpool, as a midfielder in tournament football, Southgate responded: ‘That is the unknown, obviously with Gallagher, with (Kobbie) Mainoo and even with Wharton, you know exactly what they can and can’t do.

‘None of these players can do everything, so you are trying to work out the right balance. Obviously Declan is going to be in there, so what is the balance with him? That could be different for different games.’

Along with Bellingham, Rice and Gallagher, Alexander-Arnold is almost certain to make Southgate’s final cut. So with that in mind, there is logic in the presumption that Mainoo and Wharton are in a straight shootout for the final midfield slot.

The fact Curtis Jones was an unused substitute against Bosnia suggests the Liverpool midfielder will miss out.

Manchester United youngster Kobbie Mainoo (left) is likely to be in a straight shootout with Wharton to make the squad

Manchester United youngster Kobbie Mainoo (left) is likely to be in a straight shootout with Wharton to make the squad

Mainoo’s man-of-the-match display in Manchester United’s FA Cup triumph over Manchester City won’t have gone unnoticed by Southgate. Wharton has made 15 Premier League starts; Mainoo, 19, has 24. In terms of experience, there is little between them.

‘Kroos and Modric have had a decade of knowing how to control the rhythm of a game. That’s a step beyond where we’re at with Wharton and Mainoo,’ Southgate added. ‘They’re really tender in their development.

‘They’re doing really well and we’re excited but we’ve got to be realistic about what that’s going to look like in terms of controlling the tempo at the highest level, which is also a step that none of them have seen yet.’

It’s a tough choice. Or could Southgate bring both? Now that would be bold.

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