Gareth Southgate’s safety-first tactic backfired against the USA and changes are a must in the final group game against Wales
Free Phil Foden. The Stockport Iniesta has become a celebre in absentia, his exclusion from England’s bland draw with USA a lightning rod for English discontent. The protest could easily have focused on Jack Grealish if he had not attended or James Maddison if he had been available.
The calls for Foden were the sound of a nation raging against dark nights, crappy weather, declining living standards, mortgage forgetfulness and Gareth Southgate’s unrelenting, suffocating pragmatism. Fans can tolerate a tie as long as the team tries and fires off a few flares in the process. There are enough austerity measures in the world without taking the life out of Friday nights.
Widely regarded as the preeminent talent of his generation, Foden was rated by the galaxy’s highest paid manager Pep Guardiola as the most talented teenager he’s ever seen joining Manchester City. Foden is now 22 years old and in the first phase of full contact immersion, no longer a pup to be protected but a full grown man-baller. But when England hit the wall against the United States, Southgate’s diminutive creative was ignored. Dismay among the expert class was general.
Old Thunderball himself, Roy Keane, impaled Southgate thinking with deadly clarity. “We sat and watched and waited for Foden to come,” he said. “England looked leggy and unimaginative. Terrible performance. We know Manchester City have to deal with that low block so he’s someone who can fit in a pass or two and get into those areas.”
These areas indeed. Southgate are reluctant to play players in positions they don’t fill for their clubs. With Foden facing Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva at the Etihad, Guardiola is inclined to place him in wide positions. It’s a compromise that suits both player and team. Guardiola demands discipline and commitment. Foden stands where he is told. Interestingly, he has recently started on the bench for Guardiola. This is also a luxury option.
Southgate isn’t without options, of course, but it’s his preference for Mason Mount over Foden in this advanced midfield role that’s confusing. Mount has useful attributes. He works like a dog, pursues back, goes into tough duels, cracks one or the other spectacular goal. He’s worthy of his place in the squad, but he doesn’t have the same flamboyant skill quotient as Foden.
What England lacked against the agile, well-trained, aggressive United States was a pause button, a nimble point of differentiation, a player to control the pace, select the pass and bring others into play. With Mount unable to influence the game offensively, both Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka suffered. Instead of being fed fast passes that got them behind defenders, they had to settle for slow balls in front of their markers.
In moments of disappointment, reviews are personalized. Mount vs Foden. In reality, the problem is not a micro-problem. It’s much deeper. It’s about points of view, about the kind of coach that Southgate is. Mount is the safe choice, the risk-averse choice, a choice that emphasizes not losing over winning.
Southgate spoke pragmatically after the US draw about the value of the result as it put England in a good position to qualify. There was no indication of how the performance felt to the audience, no weight was given to the viewing experience. His job was to make sure his team qualified, not to please the fans. The shrunken view of the game means Southgate is not keeping up with prevailing trends.
Guardiola showed us how it is possible to win long-range by smothering the opponent with adventure and flair. Southgate has the players to do this, but his default position is tight functionality. The reaction in the stadium tells us what the fans think of this approach. That sense of deflation and disappointment was shared by millions of viewers at home.
The match started at 19:00 BST, the starting hour for a weekend of bacchanalian releases. Southgate’s job isn’t just to win, it’s to make us feel better, lift our spirits, make the experience worth our investment and keep us coming back. Friday’s performance shattered the rebound that followed Monday’s win over Iran.
In this consumer age, where sport is packaged as entertainment and our attention is harder to hold, performance matters. Also, Guardiola has demonstrated how the new pragmatism is going for the opposition, a more reliable way to achieve your goals. Time to hold your head up, Gareth, or risk losing it. Foden has to start and Grealish of course.
This is how England should line up against Wales (4-3-3): Pickford; Alexander-Arnold, Stones, Maguire, Shaw; Henderson, Bellingham, Foden; Saka, Grealish, Rashford.