Kobbie Mainoo is England's latest hope for solving key midfield problem

Kobbie Mainoo is England's latest hope for solving key midfield problem

Watching Sunday’s dramatic FA Cup quarter-final double-header, I had a first proper glimpse this season of one of England’s next great hopes in midfield.

No, not Kobbie Mainoo — although more on him shortly — but Harry Winks, whose Leicester side were eventually seen off by Chelsea in a belter at Stamford Bridge.

Admittedly, it is five years now since Gareth Southgate regarded Winks as the missing piece in his developing England team, with the manager’s assistant, Steve Holland, saying in June 2019: “[Winks] is a player that we have very much been waiting for. I am sure he will acquire many England caps in the future.”

England had desperately lacked a midfielder who was happy to keep the ball for the sake of keeping the ball in their 2018 World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia, and Southgate and Holland believed Winks could knit the side together and add some much-needed authority in possession.

 (Mike Egerton/PA Wire)
(Mike Egerton/PA Wire)

Sadly for Winks, his progress stalled amid injuries and a managerial change at Tottenham, and he has managed just seven caps since Holland’s prediction.

He is likely to be back in the Premier League with Leicester next season but, where England is concerned, the 28-year-old’s ship might have sailed.

England’s age-old midfield problem has not, though, been definitively solved and, three months out from another major tournament, the identity of their third man in the middle (Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham are shoo-ins) is perhaps the biggest issue facing Southgate ahead of Saturday’s friendly with Brazil.

Step forward Mainoo.

The 18-year-old was on Tuesday promoted to Southgate’s senior squad, having initially been named in the Under-21s, presumably as a reaction to his performance in Manchester United’s epic FA Cup win over rivals Liverpool on Sunday.

Mainoo combines a fearlessness, that only comes from youth, with a maturity beyond his years

Mainoo was not on the pitch for his side’s breathless extra-time comeback but was outstanding for 80 minutes, combining a fearlessness that only comes from youth with a maturity beyond his years. He took the game to Jurgen Klopp’s quadruple-chasing Reds with skill, verve and poise, helping United establish a foothold in midfield.

Mainoo made his first United start only in late November and, while he is obviously a fantastic talent, what is most remarkable about his breakthrough is the way he has handled himself in the most highly pressured environment in English football.

He has stepped into a United side with no midfield presence, overseen by an under-pressure head coach and in the midst of unrest on the terraces and turbulence at board level, and not once flinched.

Mainoo looks like a player capable of carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

He is already one of the first names on the United team-sheet and if Erik ten Hag can ride out this turbulent season, Mainoo’s emergence should go down as a huge factor in saving the head coach’s job.

International football is a different game and representing England, particularly in a tournament year, comes with a pressure and scrutiny beyond even the day-to-day at Old Trafford.

 (The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)

There is nothing so far, though, to suggest Mainoo would be fazed if he is given an opportunity against the five-time world champions this weekend or in Belgium’s subsequent visit to Wembley on Tuesday, and there is no reason to think he will.

Kalvin Phillips has become one of the first players in recent memory to play himself out of contention for an England place, losing his place in the squad since swapping Manchester City’s bench for West Ham’s first team, while Jordan Henderson is now 33 and increasingly something of a pariah.

Aston Villa supporters spent the best part of their 3-0 win over Henderson’s Ajax in the Europa League last week mocking the former Liverpool captain, suggesting English fans are not about to quickly forget his sojourn in Saudi Arabia. That mistrust is as much a problem for Southgate as the sense that Henderson’s legs are not what they were.

Perhaps it is too much to expect Mainoo to be ready to start for England at this summer’s European Championship and if he was a winger or right-back, Southgate would surely keep him on ice by allowing him to further develop at United and test himself in England’s U-21s.

But, though England have evolved beyond recognition since Winks was considered the answer, Southgate has still not found a midfielder to make his side tick. Mainoo might be the latest player England have been waiting for, and now has his chance to be the solution.