Patrick Bamford has shocked the nation with his impressive displays for Leeds United in the Premier League this season. His scintillating form throughout the current campaign has left many calling for the 27-year-old to be handed his first senior England call-up, and it's easy to understand why.
Being ‘first reserve’ is never an accolade that elite-level footballers aspire to achieve. It was enough to force Jamie Vardy into an early international retirement, but with Harry Kane’s latest injury setback, it could be one of the most important positions in Gareth Southgate’s squad for the upcoming European Championship.
There were many doubts over the former Chelsea man’s ability to make the step up to the top flight, even before the 2019/20 season had drawn to a conclusion.
A LeedsLive article published back in March read: “Unless Marcelo Bielsa can find a striker, the Whites' return to the top-flight risks being short-lived…Patrick Bamford might have scored 13 league goals this season, but he has missed many more chances than he has converted, while his link-play is far short of the required level.”
Eleven goals and six assists after 21 games would suggest otherwise. However, it is easy to understand where the concern stemmed from. Bamford ended last season with 16 goals, meaning he was behind the likes of Karlan Grant and Nahki Wells in the Championship goalscoring charts - two players who have found life in the top division too much to handle.
It was the largest haul he had managed since 2014/15, and in his previous Premier League endeavours, on loan at Crystal Palace, Burnley and Middlesbrough, the Englishman managed a solitary goal in 27 outings.
His consistently impressive performances have, therefore, been one of the most surprising aspects of an incredibly unpredictable campaign.
Bamford is arguably playing in the most demanding position in the sport for the most demanding manager in the division. His job is not simply to put the ball in the back of the net, he is tasked with so much more than your average No.9.
A striker under Marcelo Bielsa is charged with leading the press, and consequently, needs to be incredibly mobile. It is also essential that they are tactically astute. Bamford will often vacate the central area, either by drifting out wide, running into the channels, or dropping between the lines.
There are several benefits to this, although the two most obvious advantages are what Leeds profit from the most. Midfielders and wingers will often arrive late in a move, filling the void that Bamford has created in the centre of the attacking third, either looking for a slipped through ball or playing a wall pass and latching onto a quick one-two in order to get in on goal. That is exactly what happens below.
Here, Bamford has pulled out wide and is just about to receive a pass from Luke Ayling after the full-back has made one of his customary sprints forward down the right-hand side. That, in turn, allows Stuart Dallas to burst into the vacant space in the middle and look for a through ball by Bamford...
...the frontman duly obliges, and Dallas fires the pass into the far corner to level things up against Leicester.
In the next instance, Bamford peels off his marker and intelligently drops between the defensive and midfield lines, offering his services to an onrushing Jack Harrison.
The Manchester City loanee lends his teammate the ball before carrying on his run into the penalty area, hoping for a return pass that arrives perfectly weighted.
Harrison then blasts the ball into the top corner and effectively seals a resounding victory for the Yorkshire side against West Brom.
So Bamford's strengths are clear for all to see, but that doesn't automatically earn him a place on the plane this summer. Southgate will likely take three strikers to the European Championship - and bar any revival of an episode like Wayne Rooney's metatarsal - Kane will certainly be one of them.
Some may point to Marcus Rashford as another, though, the Manchester United man hasn't been used as a starting striker for England since June 2019 in the semi-final defeat to the Netherlands in the UEFA Nations League. He is, therefore, more likely to take up residence on the left-wing.
SmarterScout is a site that collects detailed data and analytics from players across the world and assigns a score between 0-99 to their attributes. How do each of the aforementioned players compare?
As you can see - by hovering over the colour key - Bamford only shares 'receiving in the box' with Abraham, in which he scores higher, 'shooting' with Watkins, in which he is accredited the highest possible rating, and 'attacking output' with Calvert-Lewin and Watkins, who both score 74 compared to Bamford's 61.
What the Leeds man offers, then, is something different, something unique and what he does bring to the table he is generally very good at. In the last three England games that Kane has been unavailable or left on the bench, against Wales, Belgium and the Republic of Ireland, Everton's Calvert-Lewin has been the man chosen to lead the line.
His goalscoring prowess and ability to bring others into play deservedly earned him his first international caps in 2020 and he is probably the front runner in this particular race. But Bamford's game differs to that of his compatriot, and there is certainly room for both in Southgate's squad.
Just looking at where the two receive their passes gives a clear indication of the contrast in styles.
While it is common for the Toffees forward to pick up the ball in all areas of the pitch, thanks to his all-action style, Bamford's work is much more concentrated. With the abundance of attacking midfielders and forwards at England's disposal, surely the appeal of a player whose link-up play has excelled this season will be enticing to those making the decisions over the summer.
In truth, nobody would envy the call Southgate has to make in just a few weeks. All of the strikers previously mentioned have their strengths and weaknesses and unique elements. But the fact Bamford has even managed to propel his name into the same bracket deserves credit in itself.
Ultimately though, a No.9 will be judged on their goals, and unlike in Leeds' promotion-winning campaign, Bamford has had no trouble in finding the back of the net.
He's an agile, unselfish, intelligent, creative goalscorer. Not a bad set of attributes to have when six doesn't go into two and you have to stand out from the crowd. Bamford is having the best season of his career, and he couldn't have timed it any better.