‘Big change in mentality’: Lewis Dunk back in England fold after five years | England

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The thing that has most struck Lewis Dunk, back in the England squad after a five‑year hiatus, is the collective confidence, the way that Gareth Southgate and his players frame victory at the European Championship next summer as the only available option.

“We had a meeting the other day and he’s talking about winning the Euros and the whole squad is thinking about winning the Euros,” Dunk says. “I would say that’s the big change – in mentality. It’s not: ‘How far can we get in a tournament?’ It’s: ‘We will win this tournament. We want to win this tournament.’ Being around these top players, I can see why he is saying that.”

Dunk made his England debut in November 2018, the Brighton captain playing the 90 minutes of the 3-0 Wembley win over the United States, a game that fans will remember as Wayne Rooney’s international farewell.

On a personal level, Dunk hoped it would be the start of something. Instead, it was the last that he heard from Southgate until June this year when the manager recalled him for the Euro qualifiers against Malta and North Macedonia. Frustratingly, Dunk had to pull out because of injury and perhaps it has made his selection for Saturday’s game against Ukraine in Poland and next Tuesday’s friendly against Scotland at Hampden Park even sweeter.

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“You obviously worry after five years,” Dunk says. “It comes to a time when you probably think: ‘Ah, I might not be back in here.’”

If he has felt a shift in the England dynamics, then Southgate will recognise one in Dunk. The 31-year-old was best known in 2018 for his body-on-the-line defending under Chris Hughton at Brighton. But within the hulking frame was a ball-playing centre‑half and it has been brought to the fore in spectacular fashion by Roberto De Zerbi.

Dunk loved Hughton. He makes the point that under him Brighton were at a different stage of their journey. “We had to defend our box,” Dunk says. “I had to show those attributes and didn’t get the chance to play because I didn’t have the ball most of the time when defending.”

Dunk also talks about Brighton’s evolution into a more proactive team under Hughton’s successor, Graham Potter. But it has been since De Zerbi took over from Potter last September that the blueprint has been finessed. Radically.

Lewis Dunk making his England debut
Dunk made his debut for England five years ago and has had to wait for his recall. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA

De Zerbi is obsessed with building from the very back, recycling and risking the ball in extremely dangerous areas to draw the opposition in. They then play out incisively, rushing into the spaces they have created. It is about technical ability and dominating possession, about shifting systems, and the responsibility on Dunk has been massive. Ditto the rewards.

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De Zerbi has described Dunk as one of the top five central defenders in Europe while Dunk says that he feels transformed. In addition to the England recall, he is looking forward to Brighton’s Europa League campaign after their sixth-placed finish from last season. It will be his and the club’s first experience of Europe.

“I see football in a completely different way since the new manager has come in,” Dunk says. “The idea of what I did before … I thought it made sense. But when you learn something completely different, you believe in it and this makes sense. You think: ‘Why didn’t I know this?’

“It’s just the style of play. All our games now are about pressure, playing with opposition teams when they’re pressing high or pressing low. It’s when to pass the ball, the timing of that, the timing of movements.”

Dunk does not pretend that the click under De Zerbi was instant. “Honest answer, the first couple of weeks were horrendous … well, maybe not horrendous, they were baffling,” Dunk says. “He knows that, we have spoken about it. Him coming in, speaking through a translator. The first meeting, I was so confused.

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“You slowly pick up … basically, don’t listen to the manager, wait for the translator and you get there in the end. Training changed dramatically, it was a really hard transition, a carnage two weeks.

“The style probably looks scary to the fans, especially at home games, when we pass around the six-yard box. It sounds crazy. But we know the idea of the pass or what we are gaining from it. We are doing it to score at the other end, to get [Kaoru] Mitoma and Solly March in one-v-one positions.

“There is a method behind the madness. We rehearse it every day and now I know every position on the pitch, where they should be, the time they should move and what angles they should give. One presses from this angle, one presses from that angle. We know where the ball should go to reach past the pressure.”

Dunk is so much more confident as a player and a person when compared to his previous involvement with England and he senses opportunity. Eric Dier, Conor Coady and Ben White have faded from the picture, Tyrone Mings is seriously injured and so, behind Harry Maguire and John Stones (who is out with a more minor problem), Dunk is ready to jostle with Marc Guéhi, Fikayo Tomori and Levi Colwill. This time, he is here to stay.

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