How Grace Clinton has pressed her claim for a regular spot in England’s midfield

It was Grace Clinton’s New Year’s resolution to make her England debut. With two starts under her belt by the end of February, the 20-year-old Manchester United midfielder — currently on loan at Tottenham — might have to set herself some new goals.

Younger players have previously found it hard to break into Sarina Wiegman’s England team but Clinton looks to be having no such issues.

Clinton has been part of the two previous England squads that contested their Nations League matches without getting on the pitch. In those high stakes matches it was understandable that Wiegman was reluctant to disrupt her existing set up but at the first opportunity in friendlies, Clinton was thrown into the England midfield.

For observers of her in the WSL that is hardly a surprise. Clinton has been a revelation at Tottenham this season with question marks around why exactly her parent club Manchester United thought she would not have a role to play with them. For Clinton, though, that experience has been crucial.

“The biggest difference [between the two clubs] is game time”, she said, speaking to The Athletic earlier in the season.

“As a young player I want to play as much as possible.

“I’m getting that at Spurs and Robert [Vilahamn] has given me that chance and freedom to play.”

Clinton in action against Italy on Tuesday evening (Naomi Baker – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

Clinton joined Manchester United at the start of last season for an undisclosed fee, having come through the academy at Everton, where she was very highly thought of. She did not feature at all in the first half of last year before moving to Championship side Bristol City on loan. After 6 goals in 15 appearances, she was loaned to Tottenham at the start of this season.

There she has excelled within Tottenham manager Robert Vilahamn’s young and exciting team which prioritises attacking play. Clinton has long been notable for her versatility, and has been used out wide recently by Vilahamn, even though she has starred in midfield for England. In youth age groups she even played as a false nine.

At Tottenham, Clinton has been notable for her on-ball ability. With 18 carries per 90, she is the third most prolific attacking player when it comes to carry frequency. But watching her play for England, it is her out of possession attributes which make it clear why Wiegman has been so keen to play her.

England won their two February friendlies by significant scorelines — 7-2 against Austria and then 5-1 against Italy. Neither of these sides are teams who roll over habitually. Yet against a high pressing England side who have looked rejuvenated without anything riding on these matches, both teams wilted. Clinton played as an 8 alongside Georgia Stanway and Ella Toone against Austria but was pushed forward into the No 10 position against Italy as Wiegman reverted to her preferred midfield of Keira Walsh and Stanway.

It was immediately clear why Clinton is so valued in that role. With her and Stanway on the pitch together, Italy had little chance of progressing the ball through midfield. Their out-of-possession intensity gave an interesting clue to what Wiegman might believe is the future of this England side.

In both matches, the press from England forced their opponents into errors. The Lionesses were three goals up within 35 minutes against Italy with all of them having come from corners. It was not necessarily a dominant attacking flourish from open play but clearly showed how much Wiegman values the potential of England’s press.

Clinton is not just a pressing talent though. She carved up Italy’s defence with a pass that could have been scored by Chloe Kelly, and a number of neat moments demonstrated her on-ball prowess. But her off-ball contribution is what feels particularly notable when considering these past two England matches.

It was a year ago that a 21-year-old Lauren James first broke into this England side. She lit up their World Cup group stage but did not start either of the games in this international break. When she did come on, she played off the left for England.

It suggested that Wiegman is focused on a press-heavy midfield for England, and that she now sees Clinton as best suited to be part of that. That is a big compliment, particularly with Clinton playing in a position that both Toone and James have found success in at international tournaments recently.

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(Naomi Baker – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

For Clinton, the question will be where exactly her future lies. England are still more than a year away from Euro 2025, and she is scheduled to return to Manchester United for the start of next season. There she will be in direct competition with team mate Toone with minutes clearly a key consideration.

This competition can only be a good thing for England who have seen their pool of midfield options expand considerably over the past couple of years. It was not so long ago that it was hard to imagine who exactly would replace Fran Kirby at the World Cup. Now Toone, James, Clinton and Jess Park will likely be fighting over the No 10 role.

Right now it looks like Grace Clinton is in the lead.

(Top photo: Fran Santiago – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

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