There is a question to ask Gareth Southgate that feels especially relevant today if his intention is to convince us that England are not, as is increasingly claimed, dangerously close to abusing a talented footballer.
It’s about the player who makes Pep Guardiola’s eyes sparkle every time the conversation moves in his direction. The player in question wore the colors of Manchester City par excellence. He is, in Guardiola’s words, “extraordinary” and “incredible”, a four-time Premier League winner with a natural style and flair that gives the impression he should be on the ball by his first name.
Why not trust Phil Foden in the England shirt and make him as important to the national team as he is to his team? Why would England ban him? Why isn’t this hugely talented player a mandatory first-team selection for his country?
This is not just a surprising reaction to England’s goalless draw against the USA and a performance that can be summed up by a statistic, halfway through the second half, that Harry Kane had touched the ball more times in his own penalty area. opponents.
If anything, it is a question that could have been asked even before Friday’s game given that Foden would have had to wait until he had won the Premier League twice before being called up for his England debut.
Normally, any English player who makes such a positive impact on a top-flight Premier League team would be fast-tracked into the England squad. Not in this case though. Foden had made his City debut nearly three years before he made his senior England debut.
At City, Guardiola will blow his admiration and tell us there aren’t enough superlatives to describe the boy’s talent. It’s different with England. Foden never seemed to be one of Southgate’s real favourites. He was never the man to automatically turn to when a team lacked creativity.
They have been together, as player and manager, for two years, but there is still a distinct feeling that Southgate is testing, rather than relying on, a player who has already achieved so much in his footballing career.
All of this can get confusing, to say the least, when Foden is so clearly the difference-maker.
“It’s a real shame not to play Phil Foden in the England squad because he’s such a tremendous talent,” said Gary Neville, the TV pundit who usually backs Southgate’s selections, 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 quite in line with that way of thinking.
As it stands, there have only been four occasions in Foden’s international career when he has played an entire match. At the age of 22, Foden has accumulated 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 a lot more?
“For me, his talent is enormous,” said Neville. “I haven’t seen anything like that (in the USA match). I know we have (Jude) Bellingham, (Jack) Grealish and others. Gareth prefers (Mason) Mount, (Bukayo) prefers Saka, prefers (Raheem) Sterling. But For me… Foden not being in that starting line-up – and he didn’t come off the bench – was interesting.”
It’s safe to assume that “interesting” in this context was a polite way of saying Southgate was getting it wrong. Others will inevitably put it in more explicit terms. Southgate is often described as very reserved, and if there is a sense of deja vu here it is because many of the same arguments were applied to Grealish’s prolonged absence from Euro 2020 last year.
Southgate, to give him his due, could argue that his selections during that tournament took England to their first grand final since 1966. But that is the nature of the job and he has realized that England is, as Sven-Goran Eriksson used to say, a nation of 60 million football managers. This is one of the reasons why Southgate has not posted on social media since 2015 and has advised its players to avoid Twitter, in particular, during tournaments.
However, there are legitimate questions to be asked when many people argue that England’s biggest problem against the United States is their lack of creativity while – well, Woody knows – their most creative player has remained on the bench.
Southgate’s explanation was that, firstly, he wanted to keep a team unchanged after their impressive win over Iran. The reason Jordan Henderson was brought in as his first replacement was because he wanted some experience in the middle. Rashford was brought in to inject some extra pace and Grealish was asked to carry the ball up the pitch.
It all sounds good until you remember Foden has that extra bit of magic to open up an opponent’s defence. As great as Grealish is, Foden comes before him with City. However, he has only started two matches at Euro 2020, and has been restricted to 19 minutes so far in the World Cup.
Some people will remember Foden was once sent home from the England squad for breaching the COVID-19 rules and wonder if that still counts against him. Unlikely, though, after two years.
Is it simply that the England manager is confused?
The Foden situation against the USA may have necessitated Saka’s exclusion and not many people were campaigning for it after Arsenal’s brace against Iran earlier in the week.
Yes, Sterling was largely ineffective during Friday’s game but don’t judge the Chelsea man on one bad night. On other occasions, Southgate has been asked if Sterling is a potential Ballon d’Or winner. Sterling’s England record, with 81 caps spread over 10 years, is evidence Southgate chose him.
So, how do you fit in with Foden? Or more importantly, does Southgate think it’s important he’s willing to make changes for the game against Wales on Tuesday?
Many observers would argue that this must be Mount’s detriment. But Southgate has shown in the past that he does not succumb to outside pressure. And that has to be Foden’s biggest concern.
More than anything else, it can feel so dissatisfying that a player with such rare gifts doesn’t get a chance – or a greater chance – to show what they can do at the World Cup.
These players don’t come around often; This is what makes it special. When they do, it is important that they cherish them. England, like City, should make the most of it.
(Top photo: Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)