As the ball found the flashing feet of Phil Foden for what seemed like the millionth time inside the opening half an hour, it became apparent that they were actively seeking him out. A Manchester City side which boasts such supreme talent in its ranks was channelling almost all of their attacking electricity through this raw-boned, baby faced Mancunian.
City’s 2-1 League Cup final win over Aston Villa will be remembered as a breakout game for Foden, the match where people began to accept that he isn’t yet another overhyped English youngster – he is very much the dazzling real deal. The fluffiness of his first touch, the atomic clock timing of his runs, the care infused into every pass – all were brilliant. He outshone Raheem Sterling on the opposite flank completely.
Jack Grealish, Foden’s opposite number in the Villa side, was quiet by comparison. For months now England fans have been begging for the slick-haired forward’s inclusion in Gareth Southgate’s squad, and with good reason too. Had it not been for his swaggering brilliance Villa might already be beyond Premier League redemption – enough for an England call-up, you’d think. But Foden and a cavalcade of other talents sparking into life at a critical moment in the season make the England manager’s next selection about as straightforward as the trajectory of a Trent Alexander-Arnold cross.
Jordan Henderson is arguably the only nailed-on starter in England’s midfield. His presence as both the metronome and attacking catalyser in Liverpool’s midfield has pushed any remaining doubters off the fence. The remaining two places – assuming Southgate sticks with a 4-3-3 – are still very much up for grabs. To select Foden over the likes Grealish, James Madison, Mason Mount, Ross Barkley, Dele Alli or even Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips might be considered something of a kick in the teeth by those players who’ve spent many more minutes on grass than the 19-year-old this season. It might also reinforce the view of a certain section of fans that Southgate’s selection is biased towards the ‘big’ clubs – an accusation levelled at every England manager since time immemorial but a convincing one nonetheless.
In any case, with less than 100 days to go until the start of Euro 2020, time is running out for Southgate to finalise his masterplan – he must surely be wishing for more hours in the day and places in the squad. The selection for the upcoming friendlies against Italy and Denmark will be the clearest indication of his thoughts since England’s final European Championship qualifier against Kosovo in November.
A fair bit has happened in the four months since. A general election, Star Wars, Christmas, the spontaneous combustion of Australia, the biblical flooding of Australia, Brexit, Megxhit and a Chinese super-virus which spells the end of days for the human race (at least we won’t have to see Liverpool win the Premier League. Every cloud). Oh, and injuries. Lots and lots of injuries.
Captain Kane was ruled out until near the end of the domestic season, providing plenty of ammunition for the excuse-spraying machine gun that is Tottenham Hotspur’s Jose Mourinho. Marcus Rashford too was in the wars, suffering a double stress fracture in his back which has ruled him out indefinitely – although recent comments from Gareth Southgate suggest the England boss is positive about the Manchester United striker’s chances of being fit for Euro 2020.
Though it seems probable that both will be available for selection come June, the prospect of England being without two of their star players has brought a number of concerns to the fore. Chief among them is how feared a Three Lions team would be when stripped of its sparkling firepower. As discussed, the midfield is anything but set in stone. The defence, however, is even less so. The right-back position at least is secure, with Trent Alexander-Arnold a shoo-in. Ben Chilwell’s place on the opposite side of the defence seemed similarly safe until a slight dip in form coinciding with the emergence of Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka and the Italian redemption of Ashley Cole made him rather more vulnerable. The problem with the centre-halves meanwhile seems to be that England have plenty of decent options but no outstanding ones. It could be any two of Harry Maguire, Joe Gomez, Fikayo Tomori, Michael Keane, John Stones, Tyrone Mings, Chris Smalling or Connor Coady.
In terms of the goalkeeper position, the nation seems to have finally broken its collective non-disclosure agreement regarding the haphazadry of Jordan Pickford. While his raw shot-stopping ability has never been in question, the Everton goalkeeper’s proclivity to drop a clanger is worrying. You get the sense from him that chaos is always on the doorstep. It might, therefore, be time to consider an alternative option to guard the hallowed eight feet between the two sticks. Sheffield United’s Dean Henderson has a slight edge over Burnley’s Nick Pope in that his distribution is marginally superior.
The rest of the domestic season will be a white-knuckle ride for England fans. Injuries are the most obvious banana skin but mental fatigue is a factor too. But whatever happens between now and June, England fans can take comfort in one thing – at least we won’t have Harry Kane on corners this time around.