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Mainoo comes of age for comeback kings England

Oliver Moody
July 11, 2024

England have faced more than their fair share of criticism. But the much-maligned side finally showed what they can do against the Netherlands, as a teenage sensation announced himself on the international stage.

England's Kobbie Mainoo in action against the Netherlands
England's Kobbie Mainoo only made his debut for Manchester United last season and is now impressing for EnglandImage: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

England have not made many friends at Euro 2024. They have disappointed, underwhelmed and, quite simply, bored spectators for much of the tournament. But one thing nobody can deny the Three Lions is that they roar the loudest when they are under attack.

For the third time in three knockout ties, England conceded the first goal. For the third time, they were the team that went through. And on this occasion it wasn’t a case of one player producing heroics as everyone else desperately flailed around. Instead there were moments, especially in the first half, where England looked like a team, and a good one at that.

"I was really pleased with the quality of our play," England coach Gareth Southgate said. "It shows the more modern England way, but also the resilience and the character of the group."

Ollie Watkins' sweet 91st minute strike sent them to Sunday's final, the first at a major tournament that England's men will play on foreign soil. Although they rode their luck at times against the Netherlands, this was finally a performance where England showed flashes of the talent that made them the bookies' favorite in early June. 

However, the true star of the show was not one of their established big hitters, but Kobbie Mainoo, a 19-year-old who started the tournament as England's fourth choice midfielder. The England fans lucky enough to be in the stands at the Westfalenstadion watched him grow up in front of their eyes.

Mainoo shows boldness and confidence

He was all over the pitch, setting up chances one minute and breaking up Dutch attacks the next. One flick on the edge of the Netherlands box encapsulated the joie de vivre that has been so sorely lacking in England's game. Playing in a Euros semifinal, in just his eighth game for his country, he had the boldness and confidence to have fun.

"We haven't really had a player like him until now," Southgate said in response to a question from DW. "I think all of his performances have been exceptional, especially when you consider his age."

Mainoo linked up especially well down the right hand side with Bukayo Saka, England's saviour in the quarterfinal against Switzerland. Saka's quality and versatility have been key to England's success, providing a major threat on the right wing, while also fitting into more defensive roles as Southgate has adapted his tactics.

Bukayo Saka in action for England against the Netherlands
England's Bukayo Saka thought he had scored against the Dutch, but Kyle Walker was offside when delivering the assistImage: Heiko Becker/HMB Media/picture alliance

Much like Mainoo, Saka made his England breakthrough at the Euros three years ago aged 19. And like Mainoo now, he was then the youthful spark who reminded England and their fans why they love football. Saka's debut tournament turned sour at the end, when he and several other England players suffered racist abuse online, after missing penalties in the final shootout against Italy. 

That he has been able to continue pushing his career to new heights, in a way that from the outside appears seamless, despite these twin traumas, displays a breathtaking level of mental strength. It's a level that should not be demanded of any player, yet at just 22 years of age, he has not so much overcome these barriers as blown them to pieces. There was much talk of the smile returning to Saka’s face after he scored his penalty against Switzerland. But in truth, he never stopped smiling. Young players like Mainoo could not ask for a more impressive role model.

Question marks over Bellingham and Kane 

For all the positivity, England still have issues to deal with. They regressed in the second half, something that Spain will punish much more ruthlessly than the Netherlands were able to. More specifically, two of their best players are still struggling to fit into the system.

Jude Bellingham is an enormous talent, who is capable of winning games on his own, as he has done for England at this tournament. But it is contributing to the overall team performance that he's struggling with. After spending the first few matches tripping over Phil Foden's feet as the two naturally gravitated towards similar positions, he now regularly seems isolated when he gets the ball. Perhaps because of this, he often ends up trying to do too much.

Even more baffling is the form of Harry Kane. The Bayern Munich striker was meant to be the most lethal forward in the game right now, and an experienced international star. So the number of times England attacks have ended with Kane belatedly wanders towards the box, as one of his teammates swings in an aimless cross to nobody, is alarming. That it was his replacement Ollie Watkins who scored England's winner, raises the issue of whether Kane should start the final on Sunday, a question that previously would have been unthinkable.

The problem of Kane's confounding absence from the final third is exacerbated by the lack of a true wide player on the left flank. Kieran Trippier, understandably for someone who usually plays as a right-back, prefers to come inside rather than go on the overlap. In any case, since Southgate moved Foden inside, there's rarely anyone there for him to overlap anyway. Instead there is a yawning chasm of green; space that opposition defences simply don’t have to mark. Left-footed Luke Shaw came on at half-time and may be fit for the final.

But for now, England fans can put these concerns to one side and relish the prospect of their second Euros final in a row, which also happens to be their second ever. "We've given our supporters some of their best nights of the last 50 years," Southgate said. 

They will be underdogs against a Spain side that has the swagger of champions, but England could yet deliver fans their best night since 1966.

Edited by: Mark Meadows