There is a question to be asked of Gareth Southgate that feels particularly relevant today if his intention is to convince us that England are not, as increasingly alleged, straying dangerously close to misusing one of their more talented footballers.
It relates to the player who makes Pep Guardiola’s eyes sparkle every time the conversation moves in his direction. The player in question has worn the colours of Manchester City with distinction. He is, in Guardiola’s words, “exceptional” and “unbelievable”, a four-time Premier League winner of such natural style and flair he gives the impression he must be on first-name terms with the ball.
So why the reluctance to trust Phil Foden in an England shirt and make him as important for the national team as he is for his club side? Why are England holding him back? Why is a player this supremely gifted not a mandatory first-team pick for his country?
This is not simply a knee-jerk reaction to England’s goalless draw against the USA and a performance that could be summed up by a 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 is a question that could have been raised even before Friday’s game given that Foden had to wait until he was a two-time Premier League winner before being invited to make his first England appearance.
Usually, any English player who is having such a positive impact on a top tier 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 England’s senior side.
At City, Guardiola will puff out his cheeks in admiration and tell us there are not enough superlatives to describe the boy’s talent. With England, it is different. Foden, it seems, has never been one of Southgate’s real favourites. He has never been the automatic go-to man when the team is lacking creativity.
They have been together, as coach and player, for two years but there is still the distinct feeling that Southgate experimenting with, rather than relying on, a player who has already achieved so much in his club career.
All of which can be perplexing, to say the least, when Foden is obviously a difference-maker.
“For Phil Foden not to be playing in an England XI is a real shame because he’s a massive talent,” Gary Neville, a television pundit who is usually supportive of Southgate’s choices, said during Friday’s coverage. “He’s our best player, our best talent, by a mile and he should be playing.”
Unfortunately for Foden, Southgate does not appear to be fully aligned to that way of thinking.
As it is, there have been only four occasions in Foden’s international career when he has played a full match. At the age of 22, Foden has accumulated 19 caps. Yet who could disagree with Neville when he said that, if Foden was from Spain rather than Stockport, it would have been considerably more?
“For me, his talent is huge,” said Neville. “I’ve not seen anything like that (in the USA game). I know we have (Jude) Bellingham, (Jack) Grealish and others. Gareth prefers (Mason) Mount, he prefers (Bukayo) Saka, he prefers Sterling. But for me … for Foden not to be in that starting XI – and he’s not come off the bench – was interesting.”
It is safe to assume that “interesting” in this context was a polite way of saying that Southgate was getting it badly wrong. Others will inevitably put it in blunter terms. Southgate is often characterised as being too conservative and, if there is a sense of deja vu here, it is because a lot of the same arguments were applied to Grealish’s absence for long periods of Euro 2020 last year.
Southgate, to give him his due, could argue that his choices during that tournament took England to their first major final since 1966. But this is the nature of the job and he has come to realise that England, as Sven Goran Eriksson used to say, is a nation with 60 million football managers. It is one of the reasons why Southgate has not posted on social media since 2015 and advises his players to avoid Twitter, in particular, during tournaments.
Still, though, there are legitimate questions to be asked when many people would argue that England’s biggest problem against the USA was that they lacked creativity while – well, whaddya know – their most creative player was left on the bench.
Southgate’s explanation was that, firstly, he wanted to keep an unchanged team after winning so handsomely against Iran. His reason for bringing on Jordan Henderson as his first substitute was because he wanted some more experience in the middle. Rashford was brought on to inject some extra speed and Grealish was asked to carry the ball further up the pitch.
All of which sounds fine until you remember that Foden has that extra bit of magic to unlock an opposition defence. As brilliant as Grealish is, Foden comes ahead of him for City. Yet he started only two games in Euro 2020 and has been restricted to 19 minutes so far in the World Cup.
Some people will remember that Foden was once sent home from an England squad for breaking COVID-19 rules and wonder whether that still counts against him. It is unlikely, though, two years on.
Is it simply that England’s manager is spoilt for choice?
To put in Foden against the USA might have necessitated leaving out Saka and not many people would have been campaigning for that after the Arsenal player’s two goals against Iran earlier in the week.
Yes, Sterling was largely ineffectual during Friday’s game but don’t judge the Chelsea man on one poor night. On other occasions, Southgate has been asked whether Sterling is a possible Ballon d’Or winner. Sterling’s record for England, with 81 caps spread over 10 years, is the evidence why Southgate chooses him.
So, how do you fit in Foden? Or more importantly, does Southgate think it that important he is willing to make changes for the game against Wales on Monday?
Many observers would argue that it should be at the expense of Mount. Southgate, however, has shown in the past that he does not bend to external pressure. And that must be the biggest worry for Foden.
More than anything, it can just feel so unsatisfactory that a player with such rare gifts is not getting the opportunity — or more opportunity — to show what he can do at a World Cup.
These players do not come along too often; it is what makes them special. When they do, it is important they are cherished. England, like City, ought to make the most of it.
(Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)