Kobbie Mainoo has shown he should not just be in England’s Euros squad – but the team

Kobbie Mainoo has showed he should not just be in England's Euros squad – but the team
Gareth Southgate has a talent on his hands in Kobbie Mainoo - Getty Images/Michael Regan
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At 18, Kobbie Mainoo treated his full England debut with a youthful insouciance that bordered on outrageous. One-on-one with Amadou Onana, he had no shortage of options, with Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham rushing in to provide support. Who best to call on? In the end, the teenager chose neither, instead nutmegging the Everton midfielder with disdain. It was this irrepressible spirit that explained why Gareth Southgate had integrated him so quickly into the seniors. And it was his sheer energy that tipped the balance of a contest fraught with jeopardy.

A distinction of Mainoo’s style is how comfortable he is in tight spaces. He showed it to powerful effect all evening, at one point effortlessly giving Youri Tielemans the run-around before sparking the attack from which England earned their penalty. A bewildered Belgium were compelled into deploying two men to shackle him, and still it did not work. First Dodi Lukebakio had his hands sprawled all over his back, then Timothy Castagne sought to wrestle him to the sodden turf. Mainoo, blessed with a shrewdness far beyond his years, waited to draw the foul.

He tormented Onana in particular, humiliating him with his clever, slippery movement. The only pity was that he could not adorn all this intricate work with a goal, coming closest when he thumped a shot straight into Matz Sels. But he did quite enough to justify the hoopla that his warp-speed rise has generated. “He brought us,” Southgate reflected, “something completely different.”

Youri Tielemans and Amadou Onana double up to try and half Mainoo
Youri Tielemans and Amadou Onana double up to try and half Mainoo - Getty Imaegs/Eddie Keogh

It is apt to remember that Mainoo, having joined United since the age of nine, has never had to abase himself with any stints in England’s Under-21s. Just like Wayne Rooney before him, he has been fast-tracked to the grandest stage. The hope is that Mainoo can emulate the longevity of Rooney, who provides one of the ultimate studies in how to translate precocity into a stellar senior career. When eventually he made way after 74 minutes for James Maddison, you would hardly have guessed that the home side were trailing 2-1. The crowd were just grateful that England had finally unearthed a vibrant, invigorating force in central midfield. All told, it had taken him exactly four months to go from making his first Premier League start for Manchester United to dovetailing seamlessly into this England side.

Any question as to Mainoo’s credentials to feature in the squad this summer is now academic. For he has just affirmed his case to be in the starting XI. From his close control to his perfectly-judged drops of the shoulder, his abundance of gifts is self-evident. With each week that passes, there is an impression that Mainoo is timing his surge towards this summer’s European Championship to perfection. In the context of Jordan Henderson’s ill-starred Saudi sojourn and Kalvin Phillips’ retreat to the periphery at West Ham, his creativity has rarely felt so essential to his country’s chances.

Against Belgium Mainoo showed off how comfortable he is in tight spaces
Against Belgium Mainoo showed off how comfortable he is in tight spaces - Action Images/Matthew Childs

The great conundrum was whether England could learn anything from all this experimenting under drenching Wembley rain. Mainoo offered a tonic on a testing night, but there was no disguising the deficiencies as his team stuttered to a second unconvincing Wembley result after 15 months unbeaten. Brazil and Belgium exposed the dents in their armour, especially in defence. It fell to Bellingham, their one genuinely world-class talent, to spare the ignominy of consecutive defeats.

Southgate had seldom looked more euphoric than after Bellingham’s equaliser in the dying seconds. He knew how damaging a loss could be in terms of justifying England’s status as Euros favourites. But his jig of triumph in sodden conditions suggested that hope had been restored.

Not that this draw was achieved without casualties. You could just picture the Vesuvian fury of Pep Guardiola when he learned that not one but two of his defenders had sustained injuries in this ill-timed international window. Already fretting over Kyle Walker’s hamstring problem, he had to suffer through the sight of John Stones appearing to hurt his right knee while stretching for the ball. Such is the recipe for injustice that comes from holding a friendly just five days before Manchester City’s vital Premier League game against Arsenal.

In Stones’ absence, England’s resistance became increasingly desperate. Who, just 82 days out from the Euros opener in Gelsenkirchen, could have predicted that Southgate would be compelled to trial a back four of understudies in Ben Chilwell, Lewis Dunk, Ezri Konsa and Joe Gomez? If that line-up looked makeshift on paper, it was little better in the flesh, with Dunk guilty of a critical error for the second time in 72 hours.

Against Brazil, the Brighton centre-half had made a poor misjudgment en route to Endrick’s winning goal, stooping for a header that gave the ball away. Here he was equally culpable, trying to go toe-to-toe with Romelu Lukaku and in the end cowering in his shadow, watching helplessly as the giant striker floated a delicious cross for Tielemans to dispatch.

At least the midfield trio, with Rice playing captain and conductor between Mainoo and Bellingham, created greater grounds for optimism. Between them, these three had an average age of just 21 but displayed the poise of veterans, with their passing crisp and penetrating. If only their efforts could have been more than a mere sticking plaster on the chaos behind. Bellingham, mercifully, was on hand to deliver the late rescue act. And in Mainoo, Southgate discovered the prodigy around whom he could build England’s potentially defining summer.

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