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Why isn’t Phil Foden playing? Gareth Southgate could hand Man City star his David Beckham moment for England

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Gareth Southgate has seen this sort of thing play out before, when the former central defender was a member of England’s 1998 World Cup squad under Glenn Hoddle.

In the Three Lions’ first two games at France 98 — a 2-0 win over Tunisia and a 2-1 defeat to Romania — David Beckham resided on the bench. Clamour for the Manchester United hero to play reached fever pitch before the decisive final group game against Colombia.

Beckham started, scored a trademark free-kick in a 2-0 win and looked primed to be a star of the tournament in a talent-stacked squad. In England’s next game, he was sent off for kicking out at Diego Simeone before his teammates battled to a 2-2 draw against Argentina and were knocked out on penalties.

One UK tabloid hollered “10 Heroic Lions, One Stupid Boy” on its front page and the golden boy of English football returned home as a pariah. The fact the incident proved to be the making of Beckham the global superstar makes for a romantic story arc, but it was an ordeal that could just as easily have ruined him.

After being restricted to one substitute cameo in two games at Qatar 2022, despite being a standout player in the country’s best club team, Phil Foden is expected to start England’s final Group B game against Wales on Tuesday.

MORE: England vs Wales World Cup lineup, starting 11 for Group B match at Qatar 2022

Southgate has dubbed this World Cup “the tournament of external noise” in reference to the myriad issues surrounding Qatar’s controversial hosting. But the noise around England since the lacklustre 0-0 draw against the United States has been almost exclusively Foden-based and the manager recognises the pitfalls.

“We need to make sure we are not building Phil into a situation where, if he steps on the pitch, this is becoming really difficult for him because the level of expectation is beyond a young guy who is still establishing himself internationally in a different environment from his club where you’re comfortable with all the players you play with,” Southgate told UK newspaper reporters. “We love him to bits. We also have got to look after him a bit as well.”

When did Phil Foden make his England debut?

Despite leading England to their best consecutive major tournament performances in history, following up a run to the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup with a final appearance at Euro 2020, a perception has built around Southgate among a significant section of the national fanbase that he is a negative coach. His reluctance to use Foden in Qatar is now a central part of this narrative.

The England boss took a while to come around to Jack Grealish — the clamour for him to start at the Euros felt very similar to the present Foden furore — and James Maddison was only included in the travelling squad for Qatar when his form for Leicester City this season presented an inarguable case. There is a sense that Foden is another maverick talent that Southgate doesn’t trust.

However, the most gentle combing for facts reveals this isn’t true. Foden has been on Southgate’s radar for a long time. The term “generational talent” is slung about with abandon nowadays, but Foden has been viewed as such by people around the England setup at St George’s Park since his mid-teens.

Tongues wagged when he featured in a City matchday squad for the first time, aged 16, for a December 2016 Champions League game against Celtic. The following summer, Foden dazzled on his first outing with the senior team in a pre-season friendly against Manchester United in Houston.

“You are the lucky guys who saw the first game, for the first team for Manchester City, of this guy,” Pep Guardiola told his post-match news conference. “It’s a long time since I saw something like this. His performance was another level.”

A little over a year later, Southgate was sufficiently interested in Foden to attend City’s Premier League game against Huddersfield Town hoping to see him in action. The teenager came on for eight minutes — his sixth Premier League career appearance and sixth from the bench.

“I was at Manchester City against Huddersfield and you think, ‘Well, okay, it is a game where Foden will play.’ But actually, if I am Pep, I have other players, senior players, who I have to get up to speed because they haven’t had many match minutes,” Southgate said at the time, perhaps foreshadowing some of the juggling he is having to do himself before the Wales game. “He had left [Riyad] Mahrez out of the team, so he needed to get him on. So, Phil came on at the end.”

Despite these fleeting sightings of Foden in the top flight — by the end of the 2018/19 Premier League season he had a very handy career ratio of two winners’ medals to three starts — excitement remained palpable. He was the player of the tournament and scored twice in the final against Spain as England swept to glory at the 2017 Under-17 World Cup, jewel in a squad featuring Marc Guehi, Jadon Sancho, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Emile Smith Rowe and Conor Gallagher.

MORE: England’s biggest World Cup wins: Where does 6-2 Iran thrashing rank in the all-time list?

Southgate seemed ready to turn to Foden as soon as his minutes at City increased to an acceptable level, and so it proved. When the Premier League resumed in 2020 after the coronavirus shutdown, Foden flew out of the blocks with four goals in three league games. He was a mainstay of Guardiola’s team and started as a false nine in the Champions League last-16 win over Real Madrid.

Foden was called up to the senior England squad for the September 2020 round of Nations League games and made his debut in a 1-0 victory in Iceland, playing 68 minutes of a forgettable encounter alongside Declan Rice and James Ward-Prowse in a midfield three.

What did Phil Foden do in Iceland?

What should have been a cherished moment for Foden soon turned into an episode of ignominy. 

The City favourite and Manchester United youngster Mason Greenwood were sent home from the England camp for breaking COVID-19 protocols after they invited two women back to the team hotel.

The incident still looms for some, with Foden’s recent snubs interpreted as Southgate perhaps still harbouring a grudge over this subversion. But if this were true, Foden would not have been back in the England squad two months later, after being left out of a get-together in between.

“I made sure we chatted on the first day [together in training] and put that behind us immediately,” Southgate told reporters ahead of Foden’s November 2020 return for England. “It was done once we had made the decision on the October squad. That was it. From then on it was always going to be a judgment on football.”

Foden came on in a 3-0 friendly win over the Republic of Ireland before starting in the return game against Iceland. He was magnificent, thriving as one of two attacking midfielders alongside Jack Grealish behind Harry Kane, and scored twice after teeing up Rice for the opener in a 4-0 triumph.

Phil Foden England record

It’s remarkable to consider, given all he has accomplished at City in the meantime, Foden has not scored for England since. He has 19 caps and those two goals against Iceland to his name. His four assists during World Cup qualification came against the hardly stellar cast of San Marino, Andorra and Albania.

The rescheduled Euro 2020 came in the middle of those qualifiers and, unlike in Qatar, Foden was a starter when the tournament began. He impressed in a 1-0 win over Croatia at Wembley, thumping a shot against the post during a goalless first half before Raheem Sterling scored decisively.

Although it didn’t feel particularly telling at the time, he was booked midway through the second half and this was the start of Foden becoming a victim of various circumstances in what was supposed to be his breakout international tournament.

He kept his place on the right wing for a dour 0-0 draw against Scotland but was left out for the final group match versus the Czech Republic. Part of the motivation for this was Mason Mount being forced to self-isolate amid COVID-19 fears. England could ill afford Foden getting another yellow card and being banned for the round of 16.

Watch highlights below from England’s Euro 2020 win over Croatia (UK only):

In his place, Bukayo Saka was superb and duly kept his spot for the 2-0 win over Germany. Foden was not seen again until he came on during extra time of the semifinal against Denmark, his bright, creative presence helping to get England over the line.

Involvement in the final beckoned only for Foden to pick up a foot injury in England’s final training session. As a Marco Verratti-inspired Italy increasingly hogged the ball and turned the game in their direction, it was impossible not to rue his absence.

Fitness niggles have continued. Of England’s 13 competitive games since Euro 2020, Foden has been available for seven. However, he has started six of those, including each of England’s Nations League games against Italy and Germany immediately prior to the World Cup.

Perhaps tellingly, he was substituted with England behind against Die Mannschaft. Sterling and Foden made way for Saka and Mount, and Saka set up Mount for a brilliant goal in a 3-3 draw. When Southgate’s team belatedly discovered some verve at the end of a dreadful Nations League campaign, Foden had left the stage.

MORE: England vs. Germany result, highlights & analysis as Three Lions settle for thrilling 3-3 draw ahead of World Cup

Why isn’t Gareth Southgate picking Phil Foden?

To go back to the “judgement on football” that Southgate pledged when Foden was given his second chance with England, the attacker’s performances for the national team have not presented an iron-clad case for him to start.

In some respects, Foden finds himself in a similar situation to Trent Alexander-Arnold, who is yet to feature at the World Cup. The Liverpool right-back is a lavishly gifted footballer but also has Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker operating in his position. If Reece James had been fit, Alexander-Arnold might not have made the squad.

Foden is being passed over at the moment in favour of Mount and Saka, if we assume Kane and Sterling remain Southgate’s attacking untouchables. It’s not like the old days of talents such as Alan Hudson and Matt Le Tissier being rejected by England in favour of more meat-and-potatoes footballers. Saka and Mount are elite-level attacking midfielders.

The argument in favour of Foden comes back around to the sense that he is not merely elite, but truly special. This is perhaps something that feels too subjective for Southgate, who tends towards evidence-based selections informed by previous international outings.

Within a galaxy of stars at Manchester City, Foden has proved as pivotal to success as any of his celebrated team-mates in their latest back-to-back Premier League successes. For the past two years, he has featured on the Ballon d’Or shortlist and absolutely belongs in that company.

His stunning hat-trick against Manchester United in October moved him past 50 goals for City, reaching that career club landmark at a younger age than Lionel Messi for Barcelona. Guardiola still sees Messi as football’s defining talent but he has compared Foden to him in flattering terms.

What is Phil Foden’s best position?

So, if he plays for England, where should Foden play? He came through the youth system at City as a presumed heir to master playmaker David Silva but Leroy Sane’s ACL injury in 2019 and subsequent departure to Bayern Munich opened up a vacancy on the left wing, where his career took flight.

“Sometimes the discussion around just plopping him in as a 10 in every game isn’t realistic because in a game like the other night [against the USA] you have to have the ball and there are defensive responsibilities that he doesn’t have to do at his club,” Southgate said. “From the wide area it’s different. He’s got defensive responsibility but the role is different. In the 10 you have to cover a lot more ground and be a lot more aware of the spaces without the ball.

“If that bit of pressure isn’t right, then they are through you and into your backline. That is why we didn’t put him in as a 10 the other night. There are games where there isn’t that same tactical challenge in midfield. That might be the slot he can go and express himself [in]. But his club don’t do that, so there must be a reason for that.”

Maybe Southgate was mindful of when Foden came on with England 1-0 down and chasing the game against Hungary in June and promptly lost 4-0. He is correct to say that he doesn’t often start in the central attacking midfield positions for City. Guardiola has said Foden needs to improve his capacity to play at different tempos to thrive in the engine room, with his high-octane approach better suited to the wings at this stage in his development.

MORE: England vs. Hungary result: Three Lions demolished as Molineux crowd turns on Southgate

On the other hand, a big reason for Foden playing out wide for City is the fact that Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan are available to pull the strings. With due respect to a talented England squad, Southgate does not have anything like those playmaking options.

Simply lumping Foden in with the wide attacking rotation alongside Grealish and Marcus Rashford feels like an unhelpfully narrow view of his usefulness. Southgate did not go to that City vs Huddersfield game more than four years ago in the hope of picking out a fourth-choice winger for the 2022 World Cup.

More than any other player in the squad, Foden feels like the antidote to England’s big-game problems, where they repeatedly cede possession to technically excellent teams. He always wants the ball, cherishes it and works proactively with it.

This is Southgate’s predicament. On his own terms for selecting England teams, it has made sense not to pick Foden. However, from those early days in the City team to his reintegration after the Iceland debacle, he has also made exceptions for a talent like no other in his ranks. He should do that again and take a leap of faith that this can be Beckham in France with a happy ending.


Credit: sportingnews.com

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