Kobbie Mainoo’s impressive debut arrives just in time to give England ‘different’ Euros option

England 2-2 Belgium: The 18-year-old was named player of the match on his full international debut and can now solve a problem position for Gareth Southgate

Jamie Braidwood
at Wembley
Wednesday 27 March 2024 07:14 GMT
Ten Hag heaps praise on teenage match-winner Kobbie Mainoo: 'Wonderful to see'

Jude Bellingham was suddenly the “old head” in the England midfield, and after rescuing a late draw against Belgium, his next touch at Wembley was to provide a sense of calm elsewhere. “I know how hard it can be when people put a lot of pressure on you, so I don’t want to add fuel to the fire,” he began. Yet Bellingham also knew what he had seen. “He was good tonight,” he said. “He’s definitely a brilliant player and he’s going to have an amazing future at Manchester United and hopefully for England as well.”

Enter Kobbie Mainoo. Bellingham’s words are important, as the conversation around the 18-year-old midfielder and his chances of featuring at the Euros this summer moves onto the next stage of its remarkable escalation. These were far from ideal conditions to make your first England start: a heavy, damp pitch, an impatient, worried Wembley crowd, an unsettled, disjointed England team. Whether Mainoo had shone or struggled, at 18, it is far too early into his senior career for his prospects to be judged on one night alone.

Kobbie Mainoo is greeted by Gareth Southgate after his impressive England debut (The FA via Getty Images)

Except Mainoo was genuinely excellent against Belgium, bringing a quality of touch and composure that stood out, offering something different and exciting in an England midfield that is so close to being on the cusp of world class. Can Mainoo complete it, with his ability to glide on the ball and evade pressure in possession? No one was expecting an immediate answer tonight, not really, not when the problem surrounding Gareth Southgate’s midfield has been hanging around for a couple of years, and a potential solution has only emerged in recent weeks.

But the whirlwind trajectory of Mainoo’s career, which is still only 25 games old, means that the debate around his potential inclusion in England’s Euros squad now accelerates to whether he starts alongside Declan Rice and Bellingham in their opening game against Serbia. It doesn’t feel overblown to suggest that, either.

We have now seen all of the competition, after all, apart from Trent Alexander-Arnold, who is viewed by Southgate as a central midfielder but who has not yet started next to Rice and Bellingham. Reflecting on the past four days, to start with, Mainoo’s assurance on the ball came as an improvement on Conor Gallagher’s display against Brazil on Saturday night. His ability to turn, drive and link up with Bellingham and Phil Foden was an upgrade on the one-paced Jordan Henderson. Passes zipped through the lines can rival Alexander-Arnold’s ability to pick out a teammate. Kalvin Phillips may provide more defensive cover, but Mainoo showcased a guile that England have often lacked.

“He gives us a different profile of midfield player to anything else we’ve got and we’re really pleased with what he’s done,” Southgate said. “You can’t believe his age really. His attributes are there for everybody to see, that ability to receive under pressure and ride challenges, to manipulate the ball in tight areas.”

Mainoo drives in England against Belgium (Getty Images)

Pick a moment, and there really were several here: whether that elegant turn and shimmy in the build-up to Ivan Toney’s first-half penalty that tricked the pursuing Youri Tielemans and Romelu Lukaku into easing off, before Mainoo surged clear towards the box, opening Belgium up. There was the tenacity to hound Amadou Onana, the combativeness to stretch in and come away with the ball in the tackle that should have led to an assist for Bellingham. Mainoo took risks and attempted difficult passes in midfield, but it was the ease at which Mainoo struck up a relationship with Bellingham and Foden, in particular, that was really telling. Mainoo managed to make his full England debut look enjoyable.

And, yes, this was a friendly and England, defensively, struggled against a Belgium side who are no longer world-beating. An England side missing a first-choice defence made mistakes, and they arrived at unfortunate times – especially for Lewis Dunk. But, overall,  there was a better shape and balance to England. Jarrod Bowen was bright and stretched, providing width on the right. Ezri Konsa and then Joe Gomez tucking in allowed Ben Chilwell to play higher and wider on the left, with Foden coming inside to join Bellingham as double No 10s. Foden was much livelier than he was against Brazil, when he was lost on the right. And, really, Foden and Bellingham playing this close to each other at the Euros is going to be a lot of fun.

But Mainoo, suddenly, can be a part of this too; the teenager who was not on anyone’s radar at the start of the season is no longer a wildcard but a real option. He had yet to make a Premier League start for Manchester United when England held their previous international camp in November. He wasn’t included in Southgate’s original squad named earlier this month but then, a day after his standout performance against Liverpool in the FA Cup, he was promoted from the Under-21s. Then came the appearance off the bench against Brazil, 16 promising minutes that convinced Southgate he was ready for his full England debut when they returned to Wembley three days later. And on this evidence, Mainoo looks ready for a whole lot more. As Bellingham hinted, the fire has been lit.

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