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There had been calls, questions and criticism over why Phil Foden had yet to see meaningful action for England at this World Cup 2022 and, with his first start, the Manchester City man did not take long to show why that was.
The first half was predictably one-paced and uninspiring, despite the so-called derby nature of the fixture and the fact Wales needed to offer a lot more than they had done previously in Qatar.
They did not produce anything of note. Foden did, which will increase both Gareth Southgate’s offensive options for the knockouts, and also the clamouring for the 22-year-old to start against Senegal in the round of 16 after this 3-0 win.
That is both a positive and a problem: there are only so many attacking spots up for grabs and there are others, several of them, also fighting hard for the same berths.
And the other side of the juggling act is that the manager has heard it all before: too often, it seems, the fan favourite and clamour for inclusion is simply aimed at whoever is not in the team – see Jack Grealish, Jude Bellingham, James Maddison – especially after a dismal and uninspiring goalless draw.
For starters, there’s Raheem Sterling. He has yet to really shine in Qatar, but is a massive favourite of Southgate – who is fiercely loyal to his regular starters who have taken the national team so far, so often of late.
Then there’s the actual starter for that right-sided role Foden began the game in, Bukayo Saka. The Arsenal star was the top performer in England’s opener, scored twice and was back in the side for game two. And not to mention the other Three Lions hero against Wales, Marcus Rashford, who started on the left and finished on the right, netting a brace along the way.
Even so, Foden will feel he can point to many facets of his own performance on Tuesday night which mark him out as a more than capable starter, a potential match-winner or at the very least a first option off the bench.
In the first 45 it was his link play and industry which provided the brightest moments of play, more than one rapid exchange with Kyle Walker and Jude Bellingham quickly opening the Dragons’ defence. Closing down with gusto, ensuring the pressure was kept on Wales’ defensive line and, importantly, was happy to run behind the defence, beyond the striker.
At times when he has started in the front line, that last trait is one which has not been seen and it can make England more predictable, not less, despite his creativity. Everyone coming to feet will not open up the deepest defences.
But in the second half, switched to the left flank, with speed of play on the increase and Wales quickly beaten, Foden’s goalscoring instincts and desire to really drive into the box came to the fore.
First, he won the free-kick which led to the opener. And yes, the emphasis there is on won it, but still. Rashford netted, England’s spirit rose, Wales’ appeared to crumble.
Foden, no stranger to his team sensing blood and an opportunity to kill matters off at club level, struck just over a minute later.
A surging sprint to the far post showed both intent and anticipation beyond any defender, allowing him to plunder just his second international goal – his first in two years and England’s 99th at a World Cup. Five shots across the course of the game showed his natural inclinations, but also his need to impress; this squad of players have the knowledge that if they get the opportunity on the pitch, they better be ready to show why, next time out, they are who Southgate should call on.
(AFP via Getty Images)
One concern 20 minutes from time came with an untimely slip, Foden staying down for a few minutes, though it seemed more instant than prolonged pain. Indeed, he almost added his own brace shortly before full time, just denied by a touch from Joe Rodon, then delivered the late corner which should have led to the fourth, spooned over by John Stones.
And so the discussions between now and Sunday, when England face their African opponents, will doubtless return to who should flank Harry Kane.
The skipper will start, but his sidekicks are now less certain, both in terms of who is in the 11 and who offers the next-best impact off the bench.
Foden, like Rashford, has done as much as he could have hoped for to stake his own claim.
Southgate, no doubt, will simply be satisfied that he has the choice of several potential gamechangers and will be unmoved at the increase in demands to play any of them at all. After all, he has heard it all before.