One of the more bizarre moments of the most surreal World Cup has been Mason Mount facing down his first question after stepping out of the Khalifa International Stadium dressing room. “I am a reporter from Portugal, how do you feel about the rumours regarding Chelsea and Cristiano Ronaldo?”
There was a laugh and a stunned look. “I’ve just played my first World Cup game, I’m not really thinking about too much else. And that experience I’ve just had is something that I dreamed off as a kid,” he said.
Mount’s arrival on the biggest stage was more subtle than the impact of Jude Bellingham’s towering header or Bukayo Saka’s two goals, but no less meaningful for him functioning in Gareth Southgate’s midfield.
What it meant to him personally was there for all to be seen before kick-off, belting out the national anthem rather than mumbling through the words like many footballers. Getting the words wrong - singing God Save Our Queen, instead of King - went viral but shows how in the moment he was.
He was not in the starting line-up for England’s last three games but Southgate used him in a role that very few footballers can master. Starting ahead of Phil Foden, Jordan Henderson and in a position that the injured James Maddison will have his sights on, Mount's energy was needed to press Iranian defenders in a No 10 position, then once possession was won he was a midfielder in a 4-3-3.
What other midfielders do not have is the energy and intelligence to move so fluidly. Mount needed to attack spaces without obstructing Harry Kane dropping into his deeper role, or Bellingham moving forward towards the penalty area. He also had to receive the ball on the half-turn himself and create.
“Off the ball I was a bit higher to press and to have four up there to press. Then off the ball drifting to the left a bit more and Jude was a bit higher on the right with Dec (Declan Rice) in the middle,” he said.
“Just trying to find that space behind their midfield because we knew they would jump and try to press our back four. We dealt with that really well. The rotations with our wingers and the full-backs, and with H (Kane) up top when he drops in and everyone is in behind creating chances, it was such an enjoyable game and I loved every minute of it out there.”
England’s six-goal start in Qatar came with a warning that the two goals they conceded could cost them if they make mistakes later in the tournament. But the system Southgate has gone for, with a back four effectively getting Mount into the team, made the team look dynamic after six matches without a victory heading into the World Cup.
“I think you could see the way we moved with the ball and the combinations that we played with is something we worked on during the previous five days we were here,” Mount said. “But you see things about us needing to be more attacking but in the major tournaments you cannot afford to concede goals.
“That is when you - going further - start losing games. So you have to focus on that. That is what we have been doing as well. How defensively solid we can be. To score six goals is amazing but to concede two is not what we want to do and something we will look at going into the next game.
“We’ve just got to focus on ourselves. We know that the next game is going to be huge. It’s the USA, they are a top team, I know a few of their players so it’s a game that you want to play in and it’s a game that you’re very excited for.”
Southgate’s team-first credo was shown when Callum Wilson ran through on goal and chose to square the ball for Jack Grealish to tap in, rather than go for goal himself. It was a decision Wilson believes he will be paid back for later down the line. Interestingly, the Newcastle United striker spoke of the playing with freedom in this system.
“Everyone's playing with freedom, everyone is confident and I'm delighted for those guys to get on the scoresheet,” said Wilson. “The young lads made an impact in the game and that's what unlocked the defence to start then opening them up and creating more spaces for the forward players.
“Always, as a striker, you want to score, you're playing in a World Cup you want to score a goal at the World Cup. But you have to make the right decision on the pitch, it's about the team, not me as an individual. You get repaid - that's what happens in football, you give back and you receive.”