Kobbie Mainoo can’t ‘control’ a game of football for England as Scholes’ bold Rodri claim debunked

Will Ford
Kobbie Mainoo, Rodri and Paul Scholes.
Kobbie Mainoo, Rodri and Paul Scholes.

Paul Scholes reckons Kobbie Mainoo can be England’s Rodri or Toni Kroos and we’re not having it. We love the Manchester United star, but he can’t “control” a football game.

“If Kobbie Mainoo came in, all of a sudden you have control. You have a player who makes your team play football. Sometimes it takes just one player to be able do that. You think of Toni Kroos with Germany, he just makes them play football. He makes Real Madrid play football. I think Rodri at Manchester City and Spain – he makes your team play football and I think Kobbie Mainoo has got that, the ability to do that.”

We get it. Mainoo is super calm on the ball, he’s comfortable in tight spaces, can pick a pass through the lines and has the crucial advantage over Trent Alexander-Arnold of actually being a midfielder. England would be better off with him alongside Declan Rice over a right-back. But then that much was obvious from the get-go.

We also subscribe to the idea that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. Comparing Mainoo to players like Rodri and Kroos will always encourage scoffing given the ludicrous number of trophies the Spain and Germany midfielders have won between them, but the Manchester United teenager simply hasn’t had the opportunity. He could have six Champions League winners medals like Kroos by the time he retires after Euro 2040. He would probably have to move to Real Madrid for that to be a possibility, but that could happen; the early signs have been very promising.

What we do have a problem with is Scholes’ claim that England would “all of a sudden have control” by playing Mainoo. While he may turn out to be as successful as Kroos and Rodri, he doesn’t (currently) play like them.

“I don’t really see it,” Jamie Carragher said in March after Mainoo’s England bow during the early stages of the clamour for him to be England’s defensive midfielder, referencing his ability to “dribble and run forward” like a number eight. Per 90 minutes, no Manchester United midfielder had more successful take-ons than Mainoo (1.45). It’s one of his greatest assets, along with his ability to score and create from in and around the penalty area.

“I’m not certain he’s necessarily going to be a defensive midfielder, as such,” Southgate said ahead of that debut.  “He’s quite a progressive player but he’s had a fabulous start to his career and it will be good to monitor him as we go forward.”

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He’s operated in a deep role for United, but more out of necessity than desire. For the United Under 18s and Under 23s he played primarily as a box-to-box midfielder and more often as a number ten than a six.

United averaged 1.67 points per game last season when Mainoo wasn’t playing as the deepest central midfielder, i.e. when either Casemiro or Sofyan Amrabat played alongside him, and just 1.1 points per game when he was. He’s at his best playing with – not being – the safety net. His role in the England team would be to play from deep, like Kroos or Rodri, with a view to setting Declan Rice free, as Mikel Arteta did at Arsenal in the second half of last season. But that’s not Mainoo’s game.

One particular stat in his debut season will be a concern for the England boss, and suggests the United star if anything relinquishes the “control” that Scholes and Southgate are after: no Manchester United player had a higher xG allowed per 90 minutes while on the pitch than Mainoo (1.98). And the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze, because only Mason Mount (1.23) and Aaron Wan-Bissaka (1.28) had lower xG scores than the teenager (1.33). Essentially, United conceded more chances and didn’t create as many when Mainoo was playing.

That paints a more gloomy picture of Mainoo than we were expecting, and what we can see with our eyes flies in the face of that statistic. He was clearly one of the shining lights for United last season. But we could also see that while he’s composed and technically gifted, he often drifts out of position and had nothing like the complete control of a game that’s the calling card of Rodri or Kroos.

That may come, but we sort of hope it doesn’t. It would be a square peg in a round hole, not just now, but in years to come as the clamour grows while England continue to struggle to bring through genuine midfield conductors.

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