Even considering his handball that cost us two points against Preston, it would be safe to say Tom Lockyer is having an outstanding season. In fact, whilst the competition for the award would be huge, you would probably struggle to find too many Hatters fans who wouldn’t have him as a front runner for player of the season.
So much so that the idea that Locks may not have even gone to the World Cup would have been considered obscene by most Luton fans, as was his lack of use by Robert Page in the tournament itself.
Given his current form, come the picking of the first squad of the ‘post-Bale’ era next month there are sure to be an even greater call from Luton fans to see Locks installed into the heart of the Welsh defence.
Speaking as a Luton fan, who through his family heritage, is also in the Canton stand for every Welsh home game, I am in the almost (yes there is more than one of us) unique position to see things from both angles.
Lockyer the Hatter
First to consider is where he is within his performances for us. There is no question that he was fully worth his place under Nathan Jones. Normally on the right of the back three, where he came into the team with Burke out, he was the epitome of the ‘head it, kick-it’ defender. This season has seen him play a lot more in the middle of the back three too, even though he had done some of that when Bradley was out last term.
What is most impressive about that is the way he deals with the tall, physical strikers that he comes up against in that role, despite being relatively diminutive for that role at only 6ft 1.
What the change of manager has done, unquestionably, is improve how comfortable Lockyer looks on the ball, purely because he is stylistically allowed to do so. Not only does that make him a much more attractive proposition to Robert Page, but also to other managers, looking at the soon to be out-of-contract defender as well (but that’s for another article).
So where has he stood for Wales?
As of the World Cup, Locks hadn’t been in a squad for a considerable time, over a year in fact. This presented a narrative that he was certainly out of favour with Robert Page, especially in the way he was phased out sharply after the ill-fated Euro 2020 finals. At which time Page was able to put his own stamp on the squad knowing that, while still technically caretaker, he would at least be in the job for a considerable amount of time.
Even when he was selected for the World Cup squad, it had very little to do with his own form and plenty to do with the injuries of others. Primarily, short-term ex-Hatter, Rhys Norrington-Davies. Whilst it would be a surprise to Hatters fans, who saw him purely as a wing-back, his primary role in the national team is to be the back-up to Ben Davies at left centre-back. With him being out and Ethan Ampadu being needed in the middle of the park, due to fitness issues with both Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey, that created the need for extra defenders that allowed Lockyer in.
Luton fans would call that laughable, especially when they would look at the squad and see Chris Gunter getting in at a stage where his career has dropped off a cliff. However, that would be to overlook that fact he was considered a vital part of the squad around the camp. This is something that may seem outlandish to outsiders, but the importance of group dynamics was considered such a huge part of the success at Euro 2016 (as it was for England two years later), that Locks always had one less spot to compete for.
What about now?
Heading into the Euro 2024 qualifiers, there are two big questions that face Robert Page. One is, having flipped between the two at the World Cup, whether to play a back three or a back four. The second is whether Ampadu, one of very few players to leave Qatar with improved credit, plays at centre-half or in central midfield.
There are reasons why both of those questions should have answers that may benefit Lockyer’s international ambitions. Firstly, there is a case to say that right now, Ben Davies is Wales’ best player. Not only that, but he is also widely considered favourite to take over the captaincy, following Gareth Bale’s retirement. As a result, he will be one of the first names on the team sheet. While he started is career at left-back, he is unquestionably a vastly better player at left centre-half, which should push Page towards going back to a back three as plan A.
Given his prevalence at playing in a back three throughout his time at Luton, that familiarity would certainly be a tick in the plus column for Locks to be a major part of the squad going forward.
Ignoring other concerns, ask most Welsh fans (myself included), to pick our best back three and the answer would be Ben Davies, Joe Rodon and Ethan Ampadu. Especially now that Joe Rodon’s form has improved during his loan spell at Stade Rennais. Especially as it sounds like his comfort when on the ball is returning to the levels he showed whilst at Swansea.
However, that is where we come to the question of where Ethan Ampadu is needed. The 22-year-old Chelsea loanee can basically play anywhere other than up front and despite his youth, is one of the most experienced Welsh players with 40-caps (helped by the fact he was already playing against the Hatters for Exeter when just 15). Whilst he has been used at right back on occasion in his loan spells at Vicenza and at Spezia, there is no question to most that he is at his best in the middle.
In my opinion, Ampadu is by far at his best as a ball-playing centre-half. This is mainly because, when goals have come from Ampadu mistakes in a Welsh shirt, they are mainly when in transition and he drops too deep in recovery when playing as a midfielder. This shows that his natural mindset is that of a centre-half, meaning in his desperation to get back when there has been a turnover in possession he naturally drops into a defensive position as opposed to one of a holding midfielder.
Despite this, there is a bigger issue than just where Ampadu himself is best. Who comes into the team based on that is a huge factor. Put simply, were Ampadu to play in midfield, the next man up to play centre-back is either Tom Lockyer, Swansea’s Ben Cabango or Bournemouth’s Chris Mepham. Whereas, after Joe Allen’s retirement, Wales’ next best holding midfielders are ex-Hatter, Joe Morrell or Man Utd youngster, Dylan Levitt. Beyond that it’s Will Vaulks at Sheffield Wednesday or uncapped players like Jordan James or Terry Taylor.
You don’t need to be a member of the Red Wall to know there is a massive gap between the quality and experience of the defenders coming in and that of the midfielders. As a result, Page is almost duty bound to play Ampadu in midfield, meaning there is a spare spot at right centre-back within the back three.
Lockyer, Cabango or Mepham?
As someone who watches Lockyer week in, week out, I would have started him ahead of Chris Mepham at the World Cup anyway, even though I knew that was never going to happen. Mepham did have a poor tournament and since then, as we have already stressed, Lockyer has got even better. Meanwhile, Mepham has still been a regular for Bournemouth but there is no question Lockyer is more in form.
In fact, there is a case that not only is he a contender for Luton’s player of the season, but he may also well be the most in-form defender in the entire Championship. That would certainly put him ahead of Ben Cabango who despite starting almost every game for the Swans, is having his own form questioned by some Swansea fans.
If Cabango were to start ahead of the other two, the only argument to make in his favour would be the fact he is just 22. Whilst this is younger than the other two, when neither of them are even close to 30, that is a nonsensical argument.
So, does Lockyer start?
I hope, but I think the former Watford defender will pick Mepham instead…
…Hang on, maybe that’s why!!