Gareth Southgate needs to be asked a question that feels particularly relevant these days if he is to convince us that England are not, as is increasingly claimed, straying dangerously close to abusing one of their most talented footballers.
It’s about a player who makes Pep Guardiola’s eyes light up every time the conversation turns to him. The player in question has used Manchester City’s colors excellently. He is, in Guardiola’s words, “extraordinary” and “unbelievable”, a four-time Premier League winner with such a natural style and panache that he gives the impression he must be on a first-name basis with the ball.
So why the reluctance to trust Phil Foden in an England shirt and make him as important to the national team as he is to club? Why is England holding him back? Why is such an extremely talented player not the mandatory first 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 the statistic midway through the second half that Harry Kane had touched the ball more times in his own penalty area than his opponents’.
If anything, it’s a question that could have been raised even before Friday’s game, with Foden having to wait until he was a two-time Premier League winner before being called up to make his first England appearance.
Normally, any English player who makes such a positive impact on a top Premier League team would be fast-tracked into the England squad. Not in this case though. Foden had made his debut for City almost three years before his first appearance for the England team.
At City, Guardiola blows his cheeks in admiration and tells us that there aren’t enough superlatives to describe the boy’s talent. The situation is different with England. It seems that Foden has never been one of Southgate’s true favourites. He has never been the automatic main man when the team lacks creativity.
They have been together, as manager and player, for two years, but there is still a clear sense that Southgate is experimenting rather than trusting a player who has already achieved so much during his club career.
All of this can be confusing to say the least when Foden is clearly the difference maker.
“It’s a real shame Phil Foden isn’t in the England XI because he’s a massive talent,” TV pundit Gary Neville, who usually backs Southgate’s selections, said on Friday’s coverage. “He’s our best player by a mile, our best talent, and he should play.”
Unfortunately for Foden, Southgate doesn’t seem to be entirely on board with that mindset.
Foden has only played a full match four times in his international career. At the age of 22, Foden has collected 19 players. But who could disagree with Neville when he said that if Foden were Spanish and not Stockport it would have been significantly more?
“For me, his talent is huge,” said Neville. “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, him (Bukayo) Saka, him (Raheem) Sterling. But for me … it was interesting that Foden wasn’t in that starting line-up – and he hasn’t come off the bench.”
It’s safe to assume that “interesting” in this context was a polite way of saying that Southgate got it wrong. Others will inevitably express it more bluntly. Southgate is often characterized as too conservative, and if there’s a sense of deja vu here, it’s because many of the same reasons were used for Grealish’s absence last year for extended periods at Euro 2020.
To give him his due, Southgate could claim that his selections in that tournament took England to their first major final since 1966. But that’s the nature of the job and he has realized that England, as Sven Goran Eriksson used to say, is a nation of 60 million football manager. It’s one of the reasons why Southgate hasn’t posted on social media since 2015 and advises his players to avoid Twitter, especially during tournaments.
Still, there are legitimate questions to be asked when many argue that England’s biggest problem against the USA was a lack of creativity, while – well, you know – their most creative player was left on the bench.
Southgate’s explanation was that, firstly, he wanted to keep the team intact after beating such a handsome Iran. His reason for taking Jordan Henderson as his first substitute was because he wanted more experience in the middle. Rashford was brought in to add speed and Grealish was asked to carry the ball further up the field.
This all sounds great until you remember that Foden has an extra magic to unlock opposing defenses. As brilliant as Grealish is, Foden is ahead of him at City. Still, he only started two matches at Euro 2020 and has been limited to 19 minutes at the World Cup so far.
Some people remember that Foden was once sent home from the England squad for breaching the COVID-19 rules and wonder if that still holds against him. However, that is unlikely in two years.
Is it simply that the England manager is in short supply?
Playing Foden against the USA might have required Saka to be left out, and not many people would have campaigned for that after the Arsenal player scored twice against Iran earlier this week.
Yes, Sterling was largely ineffective during Friday’s game, but don’t judge the Chelsea man on one bad night. At times, Southgate has been asked if Sterling is a potential Ballon d’Or winner. Sterling’s England record of 81 caps over 10 years is proof of why Southgate chose him.
So, how do you fit into Foden? Or, more importantly, does Southgate consider it so important that he is ready to make changes against Wales on Tuesday?
Many observers argue that it should come at the expense of the Mount. However, Southgate has shown in the past that he will not bow to external pressure. And that must be Foden’s biggest concern.
Above all, it can just feel so unsatisfying that a player with such rare gifts doesn’t get a chance – or more of an opportunity – to show what he can do at the World Cup.
These players don’t come along too often; it makes them special. When they do, it’s important to nurture them. England, like City, should make the most of it.
(Top photo: Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)