It’s 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 is related 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 colors 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 that he gives the impression that he must be on first name 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 his club side? Why is England holding him back? Why is a player this highly talented not a mandatory first team choice for his country?
This was not just a knee-jerk reaction to England’s goalless draw against the USA and a performance that could be summed up by a statistic, halfway through the second half, that Harry Kane touched the ball more times in his own penalty area than his . opponent’.
If anything, it’s a question that could be raised even before Friday’s game as 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 has 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 made his debut for City almost three years before making his first appearance for England’s senior side.
At City, Guardiola will puff out his cheeks in admiration and tell us that there are not enough superlatives to describe the boy’s talent. With England, it is different. Foden, it seems, was never one of Southgate’s real favourites. He was never the automatic go-to man when the team lacked creativity.
They have been together, as coach and player, for two years, but there is still the distinct feeling that Southgate is experimenting with, rather than relying on, a player who has already achieved so much in his club career.
All this can be a connection, further, when Foden is obviously a difference maker.
“For Phil Foden not to play in an England XI is a real shame because he is a massive talent,” said Gary Neville, a TV pundit who is usually supportive of Southgate’s choices, during Friday’s coverage. “He’s our best player, our best talent, by a mile and he should play.”
Unfortunately for Foden, Southgate is not fully aligned to this way of thinking.
As it is, there have only been four occasions in Foden’s international career when he has played a full game. At the age of 22, Foden has accumulated 19 caps. But who could disagree with Neville when he said that if Foden had been from Spain rather than Stockport, it would have been much more?
“For me, his talent is huge,” Neville said. “I didn’t see anything like that (in the USA game). I know we have (Jude) Bellingham, (Jack) Grealish and others. Gareth prefers (Mason) Berg, he prefers (Bukayo) Saka, he prefers (Raheem) Sterling. But for me … for Foden not to be in the starting XI – and he didn’t come off the bench – was interesting.
It’s safe to assume that “interesting” in this context was a polite way of saying that Southgate was wrong. Others will inevitably put it in blunter terms. Southgate is often characterized as too conservative, and if there is a sense of deja vu here, it is because many of the same arguments were applied to Grealish’s long-term absence from Euro 2020 last year.
Southgate, to give him his due, could argue that his choices during the tournament took England to their first major final since 1966. But that is the nature of the job and he has to realize that England, as Sven Goran Eriksson used to say, is a nation with 60 million football managers. This is one of the reasons why Southgate has not posted on social media since 2015 and advises his players to avoid Twitter, especially during tournaments.
However, there are legitimate questions to ask when many people would argue that England’s biggest problem against the USA was that they lacked creativity while – well, as well as – their most creative player was left on the bench.
Southgate’s explanation was that, first, he wanted to keep an unchanged team after winning so handsomely against Iran. His reason for bringing in Jordan Henderson as his first substitute was because he wanted some more experience in the middle. Rashford was brought in to inject some extra pace and Grealish was asked to carry the ball further up the pitch.
All that 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. Still, he started just two games at Euro 2020 and has been limited to 19 minutes so far at the World Cup.
Some people will remember that Foden was once sent home from an England squad for breaking COVID-19 rules and wonder if that still counts against him. It is unlikely, though, two years on.
Is it simply that England’s manager is spoiled for choice?
Putting Foden on against the USA may have necessitated leaving Saka on and not many people would have campaigned for that after the Arsenal player’s two goals against Iran earlier in the week.
Yes, Sterling was largely ineffective 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 evidence of why Southgate chooses him.
So, how do you fit in at Foden? Or more importantly, does Southgate think it is important that he is ready to make changes for the game against Wales on Monday?
Many observers would argue that it should be at the expense of the mountain. Southgate, however, has shown in the past that he does not bow to external pressure. And that must be the biggest concern for Foden.
More than anything, it just feels so unsatisfying that a player with such rare gifts isn’t getting the chance – or more chance – to show what he can do at a World Cup.
The players don’t come too often; This is what makes them special. When they do, it’s important they are cherished. England, like City, should make the most of it.
(Top photo: Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)