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WORLD CUP TALK: Southgate must unleash Foden and let England play

England forward Phil Foden (centre) in the dugout during the World Cup Group B match against the United States.
England forward Phil Foden (centre) in the dugout during the World Cup Group B match against the United States. (PHOTO: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

THERE is always one in an England jersey, or not in an England jersey in this instance. He doesn’t fit the Three Lions’ innate caution, all stiff upper lip and even stiffer up front.

He’s Jimmy Greaves stewing on the bench as Geoff Hurst confirmed that it really was over for the Germans in 1966. He’s Glenn Hoddle at Espana ’82, wondering why the finest playmaker of his generation isn’t trusted to make England’s play. He’s Gazza through the early 1990s and Paul Scholes through the noughties. He swaggers into any international line-up except his own. He’s England’s folly.

And he was going to be Jack Grealish at Qatar 2022. The part-time Manchester City maverick was expected to be a full-time irritant for Gareth Southgate, the hair metal man ready to challenge England's traditional short, back and sides. But the Three Lions’ slog against the United States was not about Grealish – who replaced a labouring Raheem Sterling – or even James Maddison, who fitted the "flair player" identikit but has struggled with a knee injury.

The England wobble was about Phil Foden.

He’s become the prestige item that Southgate appears willing to live without, a forward who doesn’t so much learn rigid lines as float between them, a rare talent capable of altering a game’s complexion with a degree of vision beyond most of his colleagues.

In attacking spirit, he’s closer to Hoddle and Paul Gascoigne. In terms of speed of thought and movement, there are echoes of Xavi and Iniesta, but only when Foden is among like-minded friends at Manchester City. At England, he’s among automatons.

A favoured regular for Pep Guardiola, Foden has reached a level of creative consistency beyond the mercurial efforts of Sterling – who was allowed to leave City because Foden was viewed as a superior upgrade. To be a tad facetious, what does the finest manager of his generation see that the trophy-less England manager doesn’t?

Southgate’s defensive priorities are well documented. He regularly points out that tournament football lends itself to a safety-first approach, as opposed to a 38-game league season that has wiggle room to accommodate improvisation, the odd run down a blind alley and a forward reluctant to track back and defend.

Only it doesn’t, does it? The margin for error in the EPL has been wafer-thin for years now and Guardiola has never accepted the quaint notion of an indulgent player being carried by industrious colleagues on the off-chance an impudent dribble or a sneaky flick might pay off. See Grealish’s number of first-team starts last season for more details.

Even the literal tactical dilemmas hardly justify Foden’s omission. Southgate may not believe that Foden has the mental and physical presence to dominate proceedings in a No.10 role – a dubious proposition, but let’s stick with it for a moment – but does he still seriously place Sterling ahead of Foden in the pecking order?

Even Graham Potter is having difficulty accommodating his erratic signing at Chelsea – no one at Stamford Bridge is forgetting the wing-back farce any time soon – but Foden walks into any Chelsea line-up, along with most elite sides in Europe.

England manager Gareth Southgate (right) and Phil Foden during a training session ahead of the World Cup Group B match against Wales.
England manager Gareth Southgate (right) and Phil Foden during a training session ahead of the World Cup Group B match against Wales. (PHOTO: Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

Southgate's cautiousness holding back Foden

Foden’s inability to hold down a regular place in England’s starting line-up is not about his alleged shortcomings as a No.10 or even a few wayward performances for his country – he hardly excelled in the Nations League debacle – it’s about a manager still instinctively, inevitably, erring on the side of caution with no obvious reward.

Southgate reached the semi-final of the 2018 World Cup and the final of Euro 2020 without England really threatening to win either. A kind draw offered a shot at real history, but fortune typically favours the brave against elite opposition.

The usual soap opera of missed penalties and subsequent tabloid hysteria handily obscured the fact that England had greater youth, vitality and attacking variety than the ageing Italians (who failed to qualify for Qatar 2022).

The Euro 2020 final should not have required a penalty shootout.

And England should not require a third game to mathematically confirm qualification to the knockout stages of this World Cup, but here we are. A third tournament under Southgate’s stewardship and a nagging sense of "what if" lingers as the decider against Wales offers another opportunity to not so much unleash the beast, but loosen the shirt and tie a bit.

Foden must feature, not because he’s the great saviour, called upon to splash some colour on a stodgy, grey canvas, but because he isn’t. England are in a better place now. This is not Italia ’90 and Gazza, hoping a whipped free-kick and a Cruyff turn can carry a motley crew of experienced veterans to glory. Foden represents an extra piece, rather than the only piece.

Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham, Mason Mount and Declan Rice are all 23 or under: talented, versatile and dependable. But the line between dependability and predictability was crossed against the United States. They ran out of ideas. They went stale.

Foden is less predictable. He gambles, between the lines, between opponents and even between team-mates, wriggling through spaces that are visible only to him. Not every move comes off, but if Guardiola is willing to play those artistic percentages, why can’t Southgate?

The England manager may view Foden as a luxury player. But Guardiola considers him an essential worker and only he has the trophies to prove it.

The England manager may view Foden as a luxury player. But Guardiola considers him an essential worker and only he has the trophies to prove it.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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