Gareth Southgate’s team talk writes itself as England hopefuls face final Euro 2024 audition

The month of March brought a high and a low for Phil Foden. One came when starring for Manchester City, leading a comeback against Manchester United with a two-goal display in the derby. The other arrived at Wembley, as England lost their unbeaten record before the Euros with a 1-0 defeat to Brazil. If a season-high of 18 touches in the United penalty area represented Foden’s flourishing ability to determine the biggest games as well as decorate them, a far quieter evening against Brazil brought one of a certain ineffectiveness: Foden’s night finished without having a single touch in the opposition box.

The timing was conspicuous when Gareth Southgate needed others in his stretched and disjointed squad to step up in the absence of Harry Kane and Bukayo Saka – a factor which also explained England and Foden’s underwhelming outing. Foden will benefit from playing off Kane and with Saka providing width on the right of England’s attack, creating more natural spaces to roam inside along with Jude Bellingham. There is some frustration that Southgate has been unable to put together his front four for the Euros against either Brazil or Belgium, but Foden’s place within it feels secure at least.

Perhaps England and Foden would have benefited from some uncertainty, giving some impetus to a night where the 23-year-old could have grabbed it by the scruff of its neck, forming a stage where every touch and drive was an opportunity to leave a lasting impression.

Others on the fringes of Southgate’s plans are not as fortunate and would do well to act with a far greater spirit of decisiveness when England return to Wembley and face Belgium tonight. It is England’s last game before Southgate names his Euros squad in May, and while the manager has insisted throughout the international break that these fixtures would not completely influence his decision, that thinking may have changed after defeat to Brazil. Plenty of questions around his squad remain unsolved and Southgate needs some hopefuls to step up and take their last chance to impress.

Southgate names his Euros squad in May, with England facing Belgium in a friendly tonight (The FA/Getty)
Southgate names his Euros squad in May, with England facing Belgium in a friendly tonight (The FA/Getty)

That alone can make things more interesting after an encouraging start against Brazil fizzled out and slowed down to the more pedestrian pace associated with a mid-season international friendly. Southgate has admitted that it will be a big night for Ivan Toney, who has been promised involvement as he looks to win his battle with Ollie Watkins to act as Kane’s deputy in Germany. James Maddison, also an unused substitute against Brazil, is the type of creative midfielder unlikely to play the easy ball and leave things to chance. Jarrod Bowen and Marcus Rashford must provide more incision if they are handed a start on the wing.

Though, if they are all competing for places on Southgate’s bench, the more compelling England audition could be for the 18-year-old Kobbie Mainoo. The equation of England’s three-man midfield, both in terms of personnel and in style, is set to be one of the more intriguing areas of debate ahead of the Euros, even when two parts of the puzzle, in Bellingham and Declan Rice – who wears the captain’s armband this evening to mark his 50th England appearance – are already nailed down. Mainoo was brought on against Brazil and impressed Southgate with a couple of smart turns in midfield, but it remains to be seen if he is considered a genuine option given his senior career is barely a few months old.

Mainoo is presented with his first England cap after appearing against Brazil (The FA/Getty)
Mainoo is presented with his first England cap after appearing against Brazil (The FA/Getty)

If given the chance against Belgium, Mainoo can show how he is a different profile to those with whom he may be competing. Southgate is likely to be attracted to Mainoo’s composure in possession and a positional sense that can be used alongside Rice – a role that may otherwise have been saved for Kalvin Phillips before his unfortunate downturn in form. The injured Trent Alexander-Arnold or Maddison are the more risk-averse passers; Conor Gallagher represents the third-man runner, though a difficult night against Brazil was evidence that, structurally, he is far from a perfect fit. Jordan Henderson started at the World Cup but, injured again, feels like yesterday’s man.

That, however, may be fitting for the arrival of Belgium, even if the presence of 36-year-old Jan Vertonghen and 30-year-old Romelu Lukaku will be the sole reminders of what was once a golden generation. Further injuries to Kevin De Bruyne and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois mean that Domenico Tedesco’s side will lack the star power that England faced twice at the 2018 World Cup, when both nations were semi-finalists.  Indeed, a 0-0 draw in Dublin on Saturday was hardly a sign that Belgium will be arriving at the Euros as one of the favourites. Despite Southgate working through his own injury crisis, England will expect a win against the side who are still ranked fourth in the world by Fifa.

A hint of jeopardy could help, for England and their Euro hopefuls. Invariably, the focus is often on Southgate but it’s also time for the players to take responsibility for their futures. It may lend itself to an easy team talk for Southgate, on what will be the last chance to impress the manager while wearing the England jersey: if you want the shirt, grab it.