Marc Guéhi, England’s ‘big sponge’, comes of age on the biggest stage

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Marc Guéhi;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Marc Guéhi</a> applauds the <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:England;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">England</a> fans after keeping <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Serbia;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Serbia</a> at bay in Gelsenkirchen.</span><span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>

Just before kick-off at the Arena AufSchalke, with England and Serbia lined up in formation, Marc Guéhi knelt on the turf, arms out, elbows bent. For the 23-year-old England centre-half, it was a moment in time as the most important game of his life loomed. What on earth was rushing through his mind?

There had been nerves in the England camp before the Euro 2024 opener; worries, too, taking in some sticky results over the year to date. There was concern over player fitness, the composition of the defence, as well, and player fitness in defence was Gareth Southgate’s greatest headache.

Guéhi was a symbol of it. Injured at the start of February, he had missed three months of football and only returned to the Crystal Palace starting XI on the final day of the Premier League season against Aston Villa when, as an aside, he played in central midfield.

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In for the injured Harry Maguire, Guéhi started both of England’s warm-up matches – against Bosnia and Herzegovina then Iceland – and the truth was that he looked rusty. There were uncharacteristic passing errors in the former; flashes of looseness in the latter. Serbia had studied the Iceland game, in particular. They had studied Guéhi. He is listed at 5ft 10in, although he is more like 6ft when you stand next to him.

What is clear is that Serbia’s strikers, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic, are much taller. Was Guéhi ready to be targeted in a blood-and-thunder physical battle? He had better be. It was his major tournament debut. He was winning his 12th cap. The pressure was incredible.

Guéhi is defined by his Christian faith, his coolness and maturity, the strength of his concentration on the next game. The son of a church minister, he has spoken about how “God first” was the rule in his household.

He prefers not to be seen, even on the pitch. “If a defender can go in a game and seem to be doing absolutely nothing, then he is doing absolutely everything right,” Guéhi has said. It says plenty that he is not on social media. It is not for him, too showy. Those close to him describe him as extremely humble, low maintenance.

It was Guéhi’s big opportunity. Young players do not choose when those come. If Guéhi did, he would have wanted more minutes in his legs. He simply had to seize it and in that moment before kick-off, it was easy to imagine him turning the focus inwards, seeking stillness, guidance perhaps.

When it was all over, England victorious by Jude Bellingham’s goal, the clean sheet vital, Guéhi had been fundamental. It was possible to view it as a coming-of-age performance, Guéhi barely putting a foot wrong. He would probably shrug and consider it as just the latest step on his steady journey.

Guéhi’s best bits came inside the opening quarter of the game, maybe because a sound start was so crucial. When he slid a nice ball up through the lines to Bellingham, it was just the settler he needed after Bosnia. He would finish with a passing accuracy of 96%. When he won a tackle against Vlahovic and, moments later, blocked a shot from the same player, it sent a message. He would not be cowed by him. Or Mitrovic. As always, Guéhi read the game well. He stood up in the aerial duels.

Southgate was asked about Guéhi in the second question of his post-match media conference. “I saw the player that plays every week for his club,” the manager said. “Positionally sound. Calm. This was an even bigger test because stature-wise, he’s not one of the biggest centre-backs and there was going to be a lot of aerial ball in the box. He dealt with that really well.”

Guéhi’s performance was not a surprise to his teammates, either. They essentially foretold it in the buildup. John Stones, who played alongside him in central defence, talked of him as being “like a big sponge to learn … that’s how you progress and improve. His quality for his size; how strong he is, how he dominates.”

Stones added: “Marc had a big injury this season but I watched him come back in his first game and it was like nothing had ever happened. I say it about Phil Foden. He wouldn’t play for a year, come back and it’d be like he was never away … bring the ball down and smash it away.”

Ivan Toney called Guéhi his toughest opponent from within the England squad. “He’s so strong for a small guy, he’s probably up there with the strongest,” Toney said. “Sometimes I’d just drift to the other side when he’s playing.”

Eberechi Eze, Guéhi’s Palace teammate, knows the feeling. “Yeah, it’s not easy to play against him,” he said. “Marc’s strong, he’s fast. He’s smart, as well, good on the ball. He’s just incredibly reliable. An incredible player and an incredible person.”

Can Southgate see something of himself in Guéhi? When he went into Euro 96, he had left Palace for Villa the previous summer but he was inexperienced at the highest level, having won only four England caps. Southgate would be an ever-present during the finals in central defence, building great credit until everything fell apart at the last.

Guéhi has felt sharper with each day on the training pitch since his arrival into camp – he will feel even better now – and, more broadly, there is belief within the squad that they can grow into the tournament. Relief was prominent among the emotions after Serbia. For Guéhi, it is merely on to the next against Denmark on Thursday.