‘The sky is the limit’ – Kobbie Mainoo in line for first England start

Kobbie Mainoo in England training before their friendly against Belgium at Wembley

Kobbie Mainoo is in line to be handed a first England start after Jordan Henderson was ruled out of Tuesday night’s friendly against Belgium.

England manager Gareth Southgate admitted that injuries have forced him to change his plans and made it clear that he believes 18-year-old Mainoo, who has only made 15 Premier League appearances for Manchester United, is ready to start.

Mainoo made his debut as a late substitute in the defeat to Brazil and could start alongside Declan Rice in the centre of midfield against Belgium, with Jude Bellingham again deployed as a number 10.

Ivan Toney is expected to start as striker and there may be an opportunity for Jarrod Bowen on the left. Harry Maguire’s withdrawal is likely to mean John Stones will start a second consecutive game, this time alongside Lewis Dunk with Ezri Konsa deputising for Kyle Walker at right-back, following his good display as a substitute against Brazil.

Asked whether Henderson’s absence would mean a start for Mainoo, Southgate replied: “Definitely, Kobbie has a chance.

“In terms of progress into our squad, he is benefiting because we are not as rich in resources in that area. But we are really happy to see how he has dealt with training and we see things he can bring already. I am mindful that we have to look after him and make sure his development is at the right speed, but the opportunities are there as well.”

Southgate certainly does not believe Mainoo’s inexperience will inhibit him, as he said: “I think sometimes, with the really young ones, they are not even thinking about that. It is all flowing and maybe then as you get a bit older you start to think about it a bit more. When you get even older, you cannot care less about it and you go again. It is a beautiful, innocent moment when he is just in the flow and lapping up the opportunities as they come.

“He seems very calm. Definitely, you can see he is taking everything in. Talking to him tactically, he seems able to take all those concepts on. A lot of young players now, with their academy education, are able to do that. You can see his comfort with the ball and receiving in tight areas. There are a lot of steps being taken in a very short period of time, but you saw in the brief cameo the other day some of the qualities he has.”

Kobbie Mainoo turns away from Joao Gomes during England's friendly against Brazil
Mainoo's quality on the ball in tight spaces is a skill England's midfield has lacked - Getty Images/Mark Leech

Southgate, however, was more reluctant to draw comparisons between the fast-tracking of Mainoo into the England squad ahead of this summer’s European Championship and the way Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney broke through.

“I think he is doing really, really well for a young player,” said Southgate. “Those two were world stars at 17/18. Rooney before his first major championship was already in that stratosphere. Michael was propelled into that during the World Cup. I played with both of those when they arrived. Wayne was one of the best we have had. Kobbie is still developing.”

Rice will captain England in his 50th appearance against Belgium and has been impressed by Mainoo after seeing him at close quarters for the first time.

“Every time I’ve seen him playing for [Manchester] United on the TV, he has been pretty much their best player every game,” said Rice. “In training, the composure he shows, the little tight touches he takes in tight areas is really impressive for an 18-year-old.

“I’ve been asked a lot by my friends ‘what’s Mainoo like?’ and he’s really, really impressive. I really want him to enjoy his career. I think it’s really important that we don’t put too much pressure on him. He’s at one of the biggest clubs in the world and now he’s at England, and we just want to let him flourish.

“He’s so composed. I have come across so many 18-year-olds who are top players but don’t have that full package, just because of who they are as a person. But he is so level-headed, that is the first thing I learned about him. The sky’s the limit for him, he’s an amazing player and I am looking forward to hopefully playing many games for England with him.”

Goalkeeper Sam Johnstone is in danger of missing this summer’s Euros with the elbow injury that saw him withdraw from Southgate’s squad.

Johnstone is seeing a specialist to find out the extent of the injury and should he require surgery then the Crystal Palace goalkeeper will almost certainly miss the Euros.

Burnley’s James Trafford replaced Johnstone in Southgate’s squad for the Belgium game.

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