It’s a start at least. Joe Gomez, Tammy Abraham and Ruben Loftus-Cheek named in the senior squad for the first time as Gareth Southgate recognises the need for urgent renewal in the England team. This is more than a nod to Southgate’s recent history as England Under-21 coach. It reflects the desire to recast England as a dynamic, vibrant, state of the art force.
All three are beneficiaries of the heavy academy investment at Premier League clubs and radical change at headquarters triggered by the FA’s relocation five years ago to St George’s Park. The re-organisation of the coaching set-up and the identification of a new methodology that binds all age groups to the same ethos, based on possession and flair, is beginning to yield unprecedented returns with the Under-17 world champions adding to the U-20 World Cup, the U-20 Toulon Tournament and the U-19 European Championship this year.
Southgate is thus to be applauded for his experimental selection to face Germany and Brazil. Let us hope this is just the prelude to a more radical intervention. The question is not whether Southgate can afford to risk rolling out youth at the World Cup in Russia, but rather can he afford not to?
COME IN NO.10
One player above all others demands Southgate’s attention. Manchester City’s Phil Foden is that rarity in English football, a can opener, an individual with the necessary imagination, vision and eager footwork to operate in small spaces, the player who picks the pass in the final third or slots the goals himself, two in the U-17 World Cup Final.
Foden announced himself in the summer when City and United played out the Manchester derby in the biggest state of the union, Texas. Foden had just turned 17 and though City lost the match, Foden dazzled Houston with light, an electric eel of a footballer, his left boot indivisible from the ball. We are talking about the classic no.10, the playmaker around whom the forward thrust of any successful team revolves.
Foden returned from India holding the golden ball for the World Cup’s best player, a pot previously in the possession of Germany’s Toni Kroos, now at Real Madrid, Cesc Fabregas of Spain and Chelsea, and Anderson, once of Manchester United and Brazil.
THREE DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD
It was not so much the victory but the manner of its delivery that augurs well for the future. Spain were swatted aside 5-2 in the final and this after England had fallen 2-0 behind. Brazil were dispatched 3-1 in the semis. Three days that shook the world you might say with our kids proving too good for two of the most successful farmers of talent in the game. And Foden, dubbed the English Iniesta, was at the heart of it, his goals taking the game away from Spain.
The wider question of how to assimilate the stars of the future into the professional game at clubs that do not have a necessary connection with the national side has yet to be resolved. The Premier League elites meet their needs not by the promotion of precious tyros but by the purchase of mature talent from across the globe. Though this is an obvious problem, it ought not be a bar to a boy as profoundly gifted as Foden, who is simply too good to ignore.
The difficulty reality presents at City is getting past David Silva, Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. The same talent wall is not, however, barring his way with England, who demonstrated in the final two World Cup qualifying matches the kind of tactical sterility that has characterised the tournament experience in the five decades since the mother country won the World Cup for the one and only time.
Foden’s City colleague Raheem Sterling has thus far been unable to replicate his club form in the England setting. Liverpool’s Adam Lallana has had his moments in the no.10 role but not consistently. Likewise Dele Alli. Even if he were to strike from the bench, Foden’s laser guile might be the element that makes a difference, as it did in Kolkata.
Foden will be 18, if only by two weeks, when Russia kick off the World Cup on June 14. Though he has yet to feature in a competitive match for City, he is training with the first team squad, and it is worth remembering how Norman Whiteside starred for Northern Ireland at the 1982 World Cup in Spain after playing just two full games for Manchester United. At 17 years, one month and ten days, Whiteside remains the youngest to contest a World Cup match.
The great ones have a way of announcing themselves and making it stick. Samuel Eto’o was a day shy of his 16th birthday when he made his debut for Cameroon. Pele was 16 when he pulled on the Brazil shirt for the first time, scoring on debut at the Maracana in a 2-1 defeat to Argentina. He is still the youngest player to net for Brazil.
Diego Maradona was also 16 when he gained his first cap for Argentina in 1977. Though he was left out of the World Cup squad the following year, there was no pressing need in a team that included Mario Kempes, Leopoldo Luque, Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa, and one that would go on to win the tournament on home soil.
In this era, Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are unusual in not being selected by their countries until they were 18. Wayne Rooney and Gareth Bale were both capped at 17, a fate that is surely calling Foden. His manager at City, Pep Guardiola, is a devotee, as he would be since he builds his teams around the player that operates in that central position behind the striker through which the creative traffic flows.
This was the space filled by Guardiola’s symphonic leaders at Barcelona, Messi, at Bayern Munich, Thiago Alcantara, and now at City in the shape of Silva. If we take seriously Guardiola’s eulogy to Foden in Houston, then Silva might just be holding station for Foden. “I don’t have words. I would like to have the right words to describe what I saw.
“You are the lucky guys who saw the first game, for the first team for Manchester City, of this guy. It’s a long time since I saw something like this. His performance was another level. He’s 17-years-old, he’s a City player, he grew up in the academy, he loves the club, he’s a City fan and for us he’s a gift. Remember the name, balance and a left foot like you can’t believe.”
GO FOR IT GARETH
Since the departure of Rooney, Southgate has yet found his no.10, making do and mending with a succession of fudges. His commitment to youth is clear albeit with the caveat that they should be playing in the Premier League. Guardiola said he would have selected Foden to face Wolves in the Carabao Cup were he not in India so he is close to meeting Southgate’s test.
Foden is beyond the conventions that govern mortal souls. He is in a category of one, a special player who might yet serve as Southgate’s fantasy pick in Russia. This might seem an act of madness now, yet when history casts its reflective glow, it might appear a stroke of genius.