The Phil Foden discourse has rumbled on through the weekend. Now here we are, still talking about it. still scratching our heads and wondering what exactly Gareth Southgate’s thought process is as he picks his team (which is wrong) and makes his substitutions (which are also wrong), as we have done for every England manager since the dawn of time.
England managers always get a raw deal. Supporters always find a stick with which to beat them, even the fictional ones. Who didn’t feel the rage when Mike Bassett selected Tony Hedges (York City) and Ron Benson (Plymouth Argyle), for example? It isn’t often justified. But, then again, sometimes it is.
As England laboured towards a dreary 0-0 draw with the USA, fans understandably clamoured for Foden’s involvement. Southgate decided not to oblige them, afterwards citing the player’s lack of game time in the number ten position for Manchester City.
This, more than anything else, should be cause for concern. Here we have the England manager essentially admitting that he saw no way through the mind-bending puzzle that is ‘fitting one of England’s most talented and versatile players into an already fluid 4-2-3-1 system.’
Let’s break this down. Foden can play as a 10, an attack-minded 8 and on either wing. Mason Mount, Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham all had fairly ineffectual games against the USA and could have been replaced. Foden could have come on for each and every one of them with minimal reshuffling, depending on who else Southgate wanted off the bench.
Southgate’s reasoning – that Foden doesn’t play as a 10 for City – is complete nonsense. Players can operate in different roles for club and country, something he should know given how often he has fielded Kyle Walker at centre-back. When they’ve been training under Pep Guardiola for six seasons, they are not just comfortable doing it, but accustomed to it.
The justification also fails to hold up given that Marcus Rashford came on to replace Saka down England’s right-hand side, a position he very rarely plays for Manchester United.
Double standards and logical inconsistencies have been a recurring theme during Southgate’s reign whenever he has attempted to defend his decisions – as though his quotes to the media were cynically engineered to enrage fans.
If they were, he hits the bullseye every time.
There were plenty of valid reasons for not bringing Foden into the game against the US. Given the situation in the group, it made sense to ensure England didn’t lose rather than going all out for the win and being caught out on the counter.
Foden’s defensive contribution and off-the-ball work isn’t as strong as other players, and we are yet to see him produce his level at Man City in an England shirt. Jack Grealish and Rashford both scored against Iran and therefore deserved their chance to impact the game off the bench too.
Each argument has a fair rebuttal, though. England could have sealed qualification there and then with a win. Ostensibly attacking changes can prove to be defensive. Would Foden’s ability to receive the ball in tight spaces not have helped England get hold of a game they were struggling to control in midfield?
Does he need to be defensively robust when he has a solid back four and Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson behind him? What exactly is Foden on the pitch to do in the first place? It’s not to defend.
We haven’t seen his best for England because he’s so often been playing in Southgate’s favoured 3-4-3, as restrictive as it is depressing. Given Foden’s form this season, he should be lightyears ahead of Saka, Mount and Sterling, never mind Rashford and Grealish.
That debate can rage on and on. The point is that Southgate had a number of reasonable explanations to choose from. As a manager, we are by now well-accustomed to the overt pragmatism he wears as tightly as a Marks and Spencer waistcoat. Fans wouldn’t have been happy, but they might, at least, have understood.
Instead, Southgate’s comment hinted at cowardice, disdain for supporters or, even worse, ineptitude. When a player with the ability of Foden isn’t coming off the bench at 0-0 there needs to be a damn good reason.
Southgate couldn’t come up with one. No wonder a national inquest is being held. His game-changing substitutions, or lack thereof, have cost England dearly in both the World Cup semi-final and Euro final. For all the talk of England fans picking anything to moan about, they absolutely have a right to be in up in arms over this.
These decisions can decide matches in knockout football. If you’re not making them in the group stage you’re certainly not going to be brave enough later in the tournament. Southgate still doesn’t seem to be able get them right, or even know why he makes them at all.
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