A question must be asked of Gareth Southgate that feels particularly relevant today if his aim is to convince us that England are not, as is increasingly claimed, in danger of misusing one of their most talented footballers.
It’s about the player who makes Pep Guardiola’s eyes light up whenever the conversation turns to him. The player in question has distinctively worn the colors of Manchester City. He is, in Guardiola’s words, “extraordinary” and “unbelievable”, a four-time Premier League winner with style and natural flair that gives the impression he should be on top terms with the ball.
So why the reluctance to trust Phil Foden in the England shirt and make him as important to the national team as he is to his club? Why is England in the way? Why is such a talented player not a mandatory first team choice for his country?
This is not just a knee-jerk reaction to England’s goalless draw against the USA and a performance that can be summed up by a stat, midway through the second half, that Harry Kane had touched the ball more times in his own half. penalty than his own. opponents’.
If anything, it’s a question that could have been raised even before Friday’s game, with Foden having to wait until he became a two-time Premier League winner before being invited to make his England debut. .
Ordinarily, any English player who makes such a positive impact on a top-flight Premier League side would be quickly thrust into the England squad. However, not in this case. Foden had made his debut for City almost three years before his first appearance for England’s senior team.
At City, Guardiola will puff out his cheeks with admiration and tell us that there are not enough superlatives to describe the boy’s talent. With England it is different. Foden, it seems, has never been one of Southgate’s real favourites. He has never been the automatic player when the team lacks creativity.
They have been together, as manager and player, for two years, but there is still the distinct feeling that Southgate is experimenting, rather than relying on a player who has already achieved so much in his career at the club.
All of this can be confusing, to say the least, when Foden is clearly a difference maker.
“For Phil Foden not to play in an England team is a real shame because he is a massive talent,” Gary Neville, a TV pundit who usually backs Southgate’s choices, said during Friday’s coverage. “He’s our best player, our best talent, by a mile and he has to play.”
Unfortunately for Foden, Southgate doesn’t seem entirely on board with that way of thinking.
As it stands, there have only been four occasions in Foden’s international career when he has played a full match. At the age of 22, Foden has amassed 19 caps. However, who could disagree with Neville when he said that, if Foden had been from Spain rather than Stockport, it would have been much more?
“For me, his talent is huge,” Neville said. “I haven’t seen anything like that (in the USA game). I know we have (Jude) Bellingham, (Jack) Grealish and others. Gareth prefers (Mason) Mount, he prefers (Bukayo) Saka, he prefers (Raheem) Sterling. But for me… that Foden wasn’t in that starting line-up – and he hasn’t come off the bench – it was interesting.”
It’s safe to assume that “interesting” in this context was a polite way of saying that Southgate was very wrong. Others will inevitably put it in more blunt terms. Southgate is often characterized as too conservative and, if there’s a sense of deja vu here, it’s because many of the same arguments were applied to Grealish’s lengthy absence from Euro 2020 last year.
Southgate, to give him his due, could argue that his selections during that tour took England to their first major final since 1966. But that is the nature of the job and he has realized that England, as said Sven Goran Eriksson, it is a nation of 60 million football managers. It is one of the reasons Southgate has not posted on social media since 2015 and advises his players to avoid Twitter, especially during tournaments.
However, there are still legitimate questions to be asked when many would argue that England’s biggest problem against the USA was that they lacked creativity while – well, you know – their most creative player was left on the bench .
Southgate’s explanation was that, firstly, he wanted to keep an unchanged team after winning so handsomely against Iran. His reason for bringing in Jordan Henderson as his first substitute was because he wanted more experience in the centre. Rashford was brought on to inject some extra speed and Grealish was asked to take the ball further up the pitch.
This all sounds good until you remember that Foden has that extra bit of magic to unlock an opposing defence. As brilliant as Grealish is, Foden steps up for City. However, he started just two matches at Euro 2020 and has been limited to 19 minutes so far at the World Cup.
Some people will remember that Foden was once sent home from an England squad for breaking COVID-19 rules and wonder if that still holds against him. However, it is unlikely that after two years.
Is it simply that the England manager is spoiled for choice?
To bring Foden on against the USA might have required leaving Saka out and not many would have campaigned for that after the Arsenal man’s two goals against Iran earlier in the week.
Yes, Sterling was largely ineffective during Friday’s game, but don’t judge the Chelsea man on a poor night. On other occasions, Southgate has been asked if Sterling is a potential Ballon d’Or winner. Sterling’s England record of 81 caps spread over 10 years is testament to why Southgate chose him.
So how do you fit in at Foden? Or more importantly, does Southgate think it’s so important that he is willing to make changes for the game against Wales on Monday?
Many observers would argue that it should be at the expense of Mt. Southgate, however, has shown in the past that he does not bow to outside pressure. And that should be Foden’s biggest concern.
More than anything, it can feel so unsatisfying that a player with such rare gifts isn’t getting the chance – or more chances – to show what he can do at a World Cup.
These players don’t come around very often; it’s what makes them special. When they do, it is important that they are appreciated. England, like City, must make the most of it.
(Feature photo: Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)