Between now and next summer’s assault on the European Championship the small details will matter. England make no secret of the fact they fancy themselves to win in Germany but can they do that if they don’t have their most creative players on the field?
For the first time in many years, an England manager has a wealth of attacking talent at his disposal. In Poland on Saturday, Gareth Southgate was without the injured Jack Grealish while players such as Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho, Jarrod Bowen and Harvey Barnes were not selected for the squad.
But what of Phil Foden? Used here as a substitute by Southgate as he tried to create clear chances against a Ukraine team sufficiently organised and energetic to deny England many, he continues to look and feel like a footballer seeking a place to call home at this level.
Foden, 23 now, is arguably the most technically gifted footballer in England. Last season, when asked to name the most talented player at Manchester City, Grealish replied ‘Phil Foden’ without even pausing for breath.
Foden gets minutes for England. He has 26 caps now but 10 of those have been as a substitute. When he does start he doesn’t tend to go the distance — to the extent that he has only completed a full 90 minutes for his country on five occasions.
Phil Foden, 23 now, is arguably the most technically gifted footballer in England
This does not indicate distrust from Southgate. No, it points to a quandary that still seems to exist in the England manager’s head in terms of how bold he really wishes to be.
Saturday in Wroclaw was a case in point. England’s formation was familiar. But with Declan Rice sitting deep on his own, his nominal partner Jordan Henderson was given licence to play further up in the orbit of Jude Bellingham. Given the weight of possession England had and given their almost unassailable position at the top of Group C after four wins from four, was there not a case for Foden to be given licence ahead of the more pragmatic Henderson?
‘Well, Phil started the last three games in the World Cup,’ said Southgate when asked about the City player on Saturday evening. ‘He has started a fair number of games. We have a lot of good players. This week James Maddison was absolutely outstanding in training so we were looking at him in the wide role.
‘Jude has obviously been playing in that high 10 and we wanted to get Phil into the game and have a look at him in that central area. So we did that. But it was very congested in there, very difficult for all of them to find space.’
Foden now has 26 caps now for England but 10 of those have been as a substitute
If Southgate sounded mildly defensive on the topic it is doubtless because he has spent much of his tenure batting away suggestions that he is by nature a cautious coach. Much of that criticism has been unfair. However, if he were asked to name his team to start next summer’s opening tournament game then the chances are Foden would not currently be in it. Grealish, for one, would be favourite to take that position on the left which takes us back to the issue of whether Foden will ever be given a run centrally.
Playing there in City’s home victory over Newcastle this season, Foden was outstanding. But even with Kevin De Bruyne injured and Ilkay Gundogan gone, he has not been given the opportunity to play there by his club again.
‘We know exactly what Phil can do and every one is slightly different,’ said Southgate. ‘In the last few games City have been using him wider and had (Julian) Alvarez up with (Erling) Haaland. For us it is great to have those options.’
England certainly needed a little magic dust on Saturday. Ukraine are a better side than their results suggest and as such a draw in an atmosphere heavy with emotion was not a bad outcome at all. Nevertheless, England didn’t create opportunities and will have to be better against Scotland in Glasgow on Tuesday night.
The match at Hampden Park is a friendly but will be so only in name. As such it will be a valuable exercise for England. Steve Clarke’s team are rolling towards qualification for the Euros and will fancy injuring the pride of an opponent they have not beaten in almost 24 years.
Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford said: ‘I didn’t play in the 2-2 at Hampden Park (in 2017) but the lads thought that was the best atmosphere they have played in. Scotland are in good form. It is a friendly but it will be competitive.
‘You want that competition if you haven’t got qualifiers. You want to be in matches you can learn from and get something out of. These are things we should thrive off. It’s Hampden Park. You know what their fans are like but we want to go there and have the experience and win the game. I definitely get the rivalry. All the lads get it.’
England will be a changed side against the Scots and Foden can expect to start. Even after a quarter of a century of caps, it feels a little bit like an audition.