Gareth Southgate has to take many different factors into account, of which form is only one of them. But a strong season from a particular individual could see them force their way into the starting XI in time for next summer.
Eberechi Eze is one man hoping to do just that. On the one hand, the fact he plays for Crystal Palace rather than one of the Premier League’s top teams could count against him. Eze will not be playing in the Champions League or Europa League in 2023/24.
On the other hand, it could work in his favour. Eze is guaranteed to start whenever he is fit. He has the chance to shine as the leader of a team, rather than as one of many stars. And under Roy Hodgson, Eze has a team built around him.
When Hodgson returned to Selhurst Park for a second spell in charge of his boyhood club in March, many supporters feared the worst. Palace were on a 12-match winless run and were struggling to score goals. Hodgson, renowned for his ability to organise a defence above all else, was seen as a curious choice to succeed Patrick Vieira.
To Steve Parish’s credit, the risky reappointment worked. Palace ultimately finished 11th after losing only two of their 10 games under Hodgson. Relegation concerns were averted within a few week’s of the septuagenarian’s return.
Hodgson’s very first training session was an attacking one and that set the tone for what lay ahead. Palace scored an average of 1.8 goals per game on his watch, compared to 0.79 per game under Vieira. Eze was integral to Palace’s upturn in fortunes.
The former Queens Park Rangers man had struggled to find his way into the team while Vieira was in charge. Hodgson changed that immediately and Palace reaped the rewards, as Eze scored six times and provided an assist in April and May alone, meaning he had a direct hand in 38.9 percent of Palace’s goals during that time.
He has made a promising start to the current campaign too. With Wilfried Zaha gone and Michael Olise injured, Eze has become Palace’s talisman.
🤤 Eberechi Eze has made more successful dribbles (84) than any other Premier League player since the start of the 2022/23 campaign pic.twitter.com/7GSxA6vtEe— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) September 13, 2023
He scored in the 3-2 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers before the international break, when his all-round performance earned him a spot in WhoScored’s Team of the Week with a rating of 8.6 - only James Maddison, Son Heung-min, Manor Solomon and Evan Ferguson scored higher.
Palace’s shape has shifted slightly over the summer. The signing of Jefferson Lerma has seen Hodgson shift to a double pivot in midfield, with Eze deployed as a No.10 in front of the Colombian and Cheick Doucoure. Last term, he was more often used as a No.8 in a 4-3-3.
Eze is sufficiently versatile to operate in other areas too. He was moved to the left in last month’s 1-1 draw with Brentford, a switch which helped Palace get back into the game.
Given the excellent link-up play between Jean Philippe-Mateta and Odssone Edouard of late, Hodgson may be tempted to start both strikers against Aston Villa on Saturday, thus prompting a switch to a 4-4-2 with Eze on the left from the start.
No Palace player is averaging more shots per game this season than Eze’s 4.8. He also leads the way for key passes per match with 3.3, significantly higher than second-placed Jeff Schlupp and Jordan Ayew (1.8).
Meanwhile Eze’s rate of 4.5 dribbles per game is bettered only by Morgan Gibbs-White among Premier League players primarily deployed in central roles who have made at least three appearances this term.
Hodgson has publicly stated that Palace’s objective is to secure a top-half finish this term. If Eze can stay fit, the Eagles will be in with a chance.