When I worked with Glenn Hoddle on his autobiography Playmaker one of our most illuminating conversations was about his England career. The frustration itched away at him. “I always fought against the tide when I played for England,” Hoddle said. “There was never a coach who truly trusted me.”
We spoke about it for hours. Hoddle was a gem for an excellent Tottenham side, one of the best creative midfielders of his generation, but he was never England’s main man. He recalled feeling suffocated when he lined up on the right wing in a 4-4-2, wishing he had the freedom to drift inside to get on the ball, and he hated the idea that he was a luxury player.
“We only used a diamond once, away to Hungary in 1983,” Hoddle said. “It was the only time I played as a No 10. I scored the opener and made two goals. We never did it again. It was weird.”
England were rigid. Hoddle won 53 caps but Michel Platini said it should have been 100. Ruud Gullit, a European champion with a brilliant Netherlands side in 1988, thought the Spurs legend was born in the wrong country. Arsène Wenger, who brought Hoddle to Monaco, came to watch one England game and was baffled by their inflexibility.
Foreigners thought Hoddle was wasted. The 0-0 draw with Spain at the 1982 World Cup is a good example. England needed to win to stay in the tournament but Hoddle stayed on the bench. Trevor Brooking and Kevin Keegan had been struggling with injuries but Ron Greenwood still put them on. “It hurt,” Hoddle said, and he can be forgiven for wondering ifwhether much has changed in the last 40 years.
England were stodgy during their goalless draw with the USA on Friday. They made few chances and took few risks. The situation seemed ideal for Phil Foden to come on and float between the lines. The Manchester City midfielder is England’s most technically gifted player. He is a regular for Pep Guardiola. But Gareth Southgate kept him on the bench and England continued to labour.
Why is this happening? Why does it seem as if Southgate is not bewitched by Foden? Firstly it is fair to point out that England’s head coach did try to improve his attack by changing his wingers and introducing Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish, whom most fans wanted to see more of during Euro 2020. Secondly he stabilised a faltering midfield by bringing on Jordan Henderson, whose experience proved handy, and he was dismissive of the idea that he could have put Foden in a central position.
It is a valid argument. If Guardiola uses Foden as a wide attacker and does not believe he is robust enough to play as a No 10 yet, why should Southgate use him there in a World Cup? He has the underappreciated Mason Mount, who presses well and follows instructions. Jude Bellingham could also play further forward if Southgate responds to the defensive issues against the USA by bringing Henderson or Kalvin Phillips in to sit alongside Declan Rice.
Nonetheless, for all that England will surely progress to the last 16 of the World Cup when they face Wales on Tuesday, the questions over Southgate’s ability to make match-winning substitutions are not going away. Nor is the bemusement at his reluctance to use Foden, particularly as Foden has proved himself on the left for City.
Of course, Southgate is entitled to point out that the 22-year-old started England’s first two games of the Euros and their recent Nations League matches against Italy and Germany. Playing off the right, Foden has flattered to deceive. He has two goals in 19 caps and has been less productive for England than Bukayo Saka, who is rightly the first choice on the right wing.
Yet Southgate must get more out of Foden in an England shirt. If City were playing the Champions League final tomorrow, then Foden would start on the left. Gary Neville reckons he would play for France, Brazil and Spain.
Is it all a lot of hot air? Are we making the usual mistake of pinning England’s hopes on one saviour? Foden, who came on during the 6-2 win against Iran, needs to produce more in the final third. Equally he has moved ahead of Raheem Sterling at club level. Guardiola sold Sterling to Chelsea because he had Foden and Grealish on the left. Surely there is an onus on Southgate to try something different against Wales and replace the Chelsea winger with Foden.
It would be a complicated call. Sterling has not played well for Chelsea and, though he scored against Iran, he was ineffective against the USA. He is a senior player but out of form. Southgate loves his directness, speed and hunger for goals. By the same token England need a meritocracy. Sterling vanished down the tunnel after making way for Grealish on Friday. Southgate said he was getting ready for drug testing; it remains to be seen if he is prepared to drop his most-capped player.
Favouritism helps nobody and there is an argument that the emergence of Saka makes Sterling’s pace less relevant. But can Southgate move away from the tried and trusted? If England look stale, can there be any confidence he would freshen them up by using James Maddison instead of Mount as the No 10 in a tricky knockout situation? Would he ever think outside the box and shift a game by looking past Trent Alexander-Arnold’s defensive shortcomings and focusing on the right-back’s passing and crossing? And, most pressingly, will he bow to the clamour for Foden?
“England didn’t harness my talent,” Hoddle said. “And the more I saw foreign sides, the more I wanted to play for them. Playing for Holland would have been as simple as getting up to have my breakfast.”
It sounds worryingly familiar. England must ensure that history does not repeat itself with Foden.