Gareth Southgate has warned that too much pressure is being placed on Phil Foden after the England manager faced mounting criticism for so far not selecting the playmaker to start a game during this World Cup.
The 22-year-old is yet to be in the line-up from the beginning, having come on as a substitute for the final 19 minutes in the 6-2 win over Iran, and frustratingly remaining on the bench for the goalless draw against the United States, and has become a rallying point for those accusing Southgate of stifling creativity.
Foden may get his chance in the final group game against Wales, as Southgate considers “freshening up” his team, but the manager has cautioned against what effect the demands for him to play will have and whether he can perform freely. There is no doubting Foden’s generational talent, something Southgate has stressed.
'The level of expectation is beyond a young guy still establishing himself'
“We have to be careful because we are putting a lot of pressure on him now,” he said. “We’re a team and we need all of the players and they can all play a part but not any one of them is the reason we will win or lose. And we need to make sure we are not building Phil into a situation where actually 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.”
Southgate added: “Internationally, in a different environment from his club where you’re comfortable with all the players you play with, it’s really distinctive, you’re going home every night, you’re calm with everything else. This is still a unique environment. He is still a really young player and he’s doing brilliantly well and we love him to bits. We also have got to look after him a bit as well.”
Foden, at 22, has earned 19 England caps, scoring two goals, but has yet to secure a recognised role with Southgate drawing a comparison between the demands for him to start at this World Cup to the clamour to play Jack Grealish at last year’s European Championships.
“We have Jack who 18 months ago I was being murdered for not using,” Southgate said as he went through some of his attacking options with Bukayo Saka having started the first two games, ahead of Foden in what was the key selection, although he may be rested against Wales. “Marcus [Rashford] we feel has been in really good form. Phil of course is a player we love who can change games as well,” Southgate said.
“Had we put Phil on [against the US] and he hadn’t scored we would have been talking about Jack or Marcus. That’s a little bit where we are. I’m not going to change that. I know for a lot of people they have decided how it is and I’ve just got to keep making the decision that give us the best chance of winning.”
'Sometimes the discussion around him at No 10 isn't realistic'
Part of the criticism Southgate has faced is the accusation that he does not know how to get the best out of Foden, even if he has not been a constant for his club, Manchester City, this season where his form has been patchy despite scoring eight goals and providing three assists.
“We’re happy with how he is, we’re happy with how he is training. He’s bright, he’s ready and he’s a good player… He is going to play a big part in this tournament, there is no doubt in my mind about that,” Southgate argued.
“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. From the wide area it’s different, the defensive responsibility 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 back line. That is why we didn’t put him in as a 10. There are games where there isn’t that same tactical challenge in midfield.
“There might be a little bit more freedom and that might be the slot he can go and express himself. But his club don’t do that, so there must be a reason for that. But he’s a great option for us in two or three different positions and he will have a big impact in games.”
The demands to use Foden do concentrate on playing him in a position which his club manager, Pep Guardiola, does not yet deploy him in. For City Foden is normally used as a wider attacker. For England the argument has been that he should replace Mason Mount in midfield even though Mount’s pressing and discipline is admired by Southgate.
Southgate’s explanation may open him up to more criticism but the manager has determined, in this World Cup in particular, that he will do things his way and block out the “noise” in what he has described as the “noisiest ever” World Cup for events on and off the pitch.