England’s gift of a Euro 2024 draw means Mainoo should not be only rookie

Dave Tickner
England players generating some clamour.
England players generating some clamour.

There’s a familiar feeling to this Euro 2024 tournament for England now.

There are simply things that England do at major tournaments: They are rarely convincing in group stages; they nearly always qualify from group stages. Their fans sing problematic songs about German bombers. The front pages of the tabloids go even more deranged than usual.

And, specifically under Gareth Southgate, they manoeuvre themselves adroitly into the right side of the draw.

Four major tournaments, four group stages of varying degrees of competence, four spots secured in the kinder half of the draw.

Whatever other faults Southgate may have as a manager, his record in this regard simply cannot be queried.

When Southgate took over, England had – quite hilariously – not won a tournament knockout game since 2006. Southgate’s England have won six in the last three tournaments.

And none of those have come against anything other than a team England ought to have beaten: Colombia, Sweden, an all-time-low Germany, Ukraine, Denmark, Senegal. None of them easy games, but all of them easier than all manner of alternatives that loitered elsewhere at the same stage in those tournament brackets.

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Southgate has done pretty much nothing to alter England’s long history of losing the first time they meet a really good team. Croatia, Italy and France all had their number in the end. What he’s worked out – just as Sir Bobby Robson did at Italia 90 – is that the easiest way round this pesky little problem is just to make sure you’re in a nice bit of the draw where you simply don’t have to worry about such teams until much later.

It is frankly ridiculous that other England managers have not adopted this obviously sensible policy. They are damn fools.

So yes, England failing to convince yet somehow finding themselves in the half of the draw that avoids what would in a more balanced line-up appear to be the four likeliest winners – Germany, Spain, France, Portugal – is classic tournament territory for England.

And the existence of Clamour is absolutely on brand, too. Nobody does a Clamour quite like England. Some of us are even old enough to remember the Great Aaron Lennon Clamour of 2006.

The bulk of Jack Grealish’s England career has been spent in Clamour Town.

But rarely have there been quite so many Clamours occurring quite so noisily and concurrently. And almost never in modern tournament history has Southgate faced the possibility – necessity, even – to give in to that clamouring.

Specifically, there is almost no precedent in modern tournament history for an England manager bringing callow inexperienced novices into his starting XI midway through a tournament.

A 19-year-old Bukayo Saka played his way into Southgate’s Euro 2020 starting line-up by the third game of the group stage despite having only a handful of caps.

But before that, you’re going back to the David Beckham Clamour at France 98 for anything like what England face now. And that wasn’t really the same as throwing Kobbie Mainoo, Anthony Gordon or Cole Palmer into the starting XI.

Beckham’s omission from the starting line-up at the start of the 1998 World Cup was a genuine surprise. He was already a huge Premier League star, 23 years old and with 13 England caps to his name before the tournament.

Hoddle bringing him into the starting line-up wasn’t the surprise; it was that it took until the third game to happen. It also quite famously ended up not working out that well in the end.

In the 23 years between Beckham and Saka, there really is nothing quite comparable to what Southgate might now need to do. Players have come into the starting XI at this stage, but they have always been more senior pros.

Even Southgate at his most small-c conservative surely cannot now be thinking of starting anyone other than Kobbie Mainoo alongside Declan Rice against Slovakia in the last 16.

It was the right choice even when it looked like being the Netherlands that England would face in Gelsenkirchen. It’s overwhelmingly the choice now in a game that will feel far more like the Serbia and Slovenia games than had been expected.

There had been an argument, quite a compelling one as it goes, that England might actually perform better against better teams in the knockouts, teams that wouldn’t mass two ranks of four between them and the goal and challenge England’s slow-burn attacks to pick a path through and around the thickets.

That’s now not the case. We have already seen the exact blueprint for how Slovakia will approach England. They will seek to do what they themselves did against Belgium, and what both Serbia and Slovenia did against England.

Slovakia have proved themselves a disciplined and organised side of the precise kind England have struggled against thus far. They are not about to abandon that approach here, and would be mad to do so.

So now Southgate has something even bigger to consider. We must admit to some lingering trepidation that he would even have the balls to go with Mainoo against the Dutch, whether when push came to knockout-game shove he wouldn’t retreat back to the safety of Conor Gallagher’s endeavour and fouls.

That doubt has eased now. Mainoo surely starts. But can and should Southgate go further given what we know about England’s performances thus far and indeed Slovakia’s?

Southgate must consider decisions that would have been unthinkable even a fortnight ago. Does Cole Palmer start in place of a thoroughly exhausted Bukayo Saka? Does Anthony Gordon start on the left? And if so, does that mean dropping Phil Foden or moving him inside and leaving out a misfiring Jude Bellingham? It feels absurd even to say it, but that is where the Clamour currently leads.

Even replacing Harry Kane’s experience, proven tournament goalscoring record and wide-ranging skillset for Ollie Watkins’ ability to run no longer seems like the outlandish fairy-tale it did about 10 days ago.

England have been handed another oh-so-familiar tournament chance, pretty much despite their best efforts. Southgate has been here before, but may need to be bolder than his natural instincts to take advantage.

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👉 England knackered? Top 10 over-used players topped by Arsenal machine