Increasingly likely Mainoo will start against Slovakia

It is looking increasingly likely that Kobbie Mainoo will earn his first start at a major tournament, when England play Slovakia on Sunday.

Mainoo came off the bench at half-time in England’s final group game against Slovenia on Tuesday as a replacement for Conor Gallagher, and Gareth Southgate spoke warmly after the match about the impact the Manchester United midfielder had.

However, with two days to go until the knockout game, the England manager has yet to make his final decisions on team selection, and his habit is to only inform the players of the starting XI the night before the match. So it is possible that plans could change, as we get closer to kick off in Gelsenkirchen.

Mainoo came off the bench at half-time in England’s final group game against Slovenia
Mainoo came off the bench at half-time in England’s final group game against Slovenia

England had a closed training session in Blankenhain earlier on Friday, away from the cameras, where the squad began their specific tactical preparation for the last 16 match.

It is thought Phil Foden was back in time to take part, having left the camp for 48 hours to fly home to be with his partner for the birth of their third child.

It is not known if any other members of the squad were forced to work on their own fitness programmes on Friday, away from the rest of the group on the grass.

Mainoo is at the forefront of the manager's thoughts
Mainoo is at the forefront of the manager’s thoughts

Kieran Trippier and Declan Rice did that on Thursday, but there was little concern among the England coaches and medical staff about the pair. It is thought the conditioning experts were trying to manage their workload after Rice and Trippier both started each of England’s three group games, all in the space of 10 days.

Trippier is still nursing a minor calf injury that affected the end of his club season, but as things stand, he is still expected to play against Slovakia.

Foden will be assessed constantly in the lead up to Sunday’s match, having missed England’s recovery session on Wednesday and one full training day on Thursday. It is expected he will be available for selection.

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Gary Neville says the introduction of Kobbie Mainoo, Cole Palmer and Anthony Gordon had a positive impact on the England team in the draw with Slovenia

As for Mainoo, he is at the forefront of the manager’s thoughts, as Southgate searches for a solution to England’s midfield problems.

Declan Rice will continue in his defensive-midfield role against Slovakia. He has had three different central midfield partners in the three group games so far.

Southgate’s first choice was Trent Alexander-Arnold, who he said he had been working with for 12 months on a specialist new role. Described best as a “quarterback” position, whereby Alexander-Arnold’s brilliant passing ability might be exploited to start England attacks, that “experiment” was scrapped in the 54th minute of the second group game against Denmark.

Kobbie Mainoo is in line for his first start at a major tournament
Mainoo is in line for his first start at a major tournament

While the Liverpool man’s passing stats were impressive, England were losing the midfield battle, largely because Alexander-Arnold has very little experience in the defensive and positional responsibilities of the role, which is very different from the one he plays with his club.

Gallagher came on for him in Frankfurt, and kept his place in the starting XI against Slovenia in Cologne. The theory was that England needed the Chelsea player’s understanding of the position, his impressive stamina, and ability to disrupt the opposition.

But he was replaced at half-time in that game, because Southgate felt England weren’t keeping the ball well enough, and were inviting pressure.

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Sky Sports News chief reporter Kaveh Solhekol explains why he thinks Kobbie Mainoo has to start for England in their last 16 clash with Slovakia

Cue the entrance of Mainoo, for the second half. His second substitute appearance in Germany. Southgate said he “had a really good impact” and “used the ball well.” His stats showed the manager’s appraisal was correct.

Because they have all had a different number of minutes on the pitch in the tournament so far, we have averaged out the performances of all three central midfield players over a hypothetical 90 minutes, so as to provide an equal and fair comparison of how they have performed.

As you can see from the numbers, Mainoo was almost identical to Alexander-Arnold in terms of completed passes, and also successful passes in the opponents’ half. He also won twice as many tackles as the Liverpool player, and more even than Gallagher.

He won more duels than Alexander-Arnold, but fewer than Gallagher on that particular count. Mainoo had far fewer shots than Alexander-Arnold, on average, but the accuracy of those shots was not much different.

Kobbie Mainoo is in line for his first start at a major tournament
Mainoo is in line for his first start at a major tournament

If you look at his pass map below, you can see that he was much more dynamic than Gallagher, with many more touches and a much broader spread of where he was on the ball, and how he impacted the game.

On that evidence, it seems Mainoo offers Southgate the best of both worlds: a creative, instinctive offensive passer who links up well with England’s other attacking options, but also a natural central midfielder, who is disciplined positionally and can win the ball back for England when they lose it.

Conor Gallagher and Kobbie Mainoo's pass maps against Slovenia at Euro 2024
Conor Gallagher and Kobbie Mainoo’s pass maps against Slovenia at Euro 2024

It has been a tough tournament for Alexander-Arnold (who Jamie Carragher said had been made a “scapegoat” for England’s poor first two matches) and for Gallagher – who did what he was primarily brought in to do – stiffen the England midfield – but who has only played a total of just over 80 minutes in his first major tournament.

This is the one area of the pitch where Southgate has been trying to find a successful formula. He has chopped and changed his midfield throughout the group stages, striving to find something that works.

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England boss Gareth Southgate believes the changes his side made had a positive affect on the team, with Cole Palmer and Kobbie Mainoo impressing off the bench against Slovenia

The manager knows the engine room of the team is absolutely key to England’s success at these Euros, the part of the team where, in elite football, control of the football is determined, and momentum instigated.

And to be fair to Southgate (while he may, fairly, be accused of a lack of consistency in selection in this area of the pitch) when he has felt during matches that his original plan was failing, he has made swift and decisive changes.

On 54 minutes in game two, and on 45 minutes in game three. That lack of making impactful substitutions has been something some pundits have heavily criticised him for, in tournaments of the past.

Mainoo may have been Southgate’s third choice option, but he looks like England’s best option right now.

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