Obsession with the next generation is part and parcel of modern football, but within the context of the England national team it always seems particularly prevalent.
Perhaps because we’ve become so used to what we perceive to be serial underachievement, before England’s current generation has even peaked we’re already talking about the next batch breaking through – untainted by whatever the most recent Three Lions heartbreak is and seemingly limitless in potential, albeit largely because we’re still yet to discover what their actual limits are.
And that obsession by no means stops at average supporters. After a Carabao Cup final that included none other than Jack Grealish, perhaps the standout English performer in the Premier League this season, who has aptly come of age just in time for Euro 2020, Henry Winter’s attentions were instead focused on 19-year-old Phil Foden in just his 24th start as a senior footballer. For comparison, Grealish boasts more starts as Aston Villa’s captain, let alone his career total.
Phil Foden truly is a special young player. Yes, plenty to learn etc, still only 19, but already such a talent. Touch, composure and some of his passing, the timing of release and weight, exceptional. Has to go to the Euros. #mcfc #eng
— Henry Winter (@henrywinter) March 1, 2020
No doubt, Foden is an incredibly promising young talent. We can point to statistics like his impressive 10 goals and 10 assists for Man City at just 19 years of age, but it’s as much about what the eye tells us as any number crunching. He controls the ball and uses his body with immaculate effortlessness, as though he simply conducts the energy used to create magic moments rather than owning it or even producing it.
Once again though, the Foden hype owes as much to the fact we still don’t know what his limits are as what he’s actually proved on the football pitch. Perhaps he is in fact virtually limitless and indeed Stockport’s answer to Lionel Messi, or perhaps Pep Guardiola has meticulously selected the right fixtures to showcase a prodigious young talent while hiding his flaws.
Inevitably, much like there is in online betting, there’s a sense of big-club bias here too, especially when there’s a talented Englishman just six months older than Foden receiving nowhere near the same level of endorsement, despite already taking on the responsibilities of a seasoned professional by doing the business practically every weekend in the Premier League – regardless of quality of opposition.
That player in question is Burnley’s Dwight McNeil, someone who doesn’t enjoy the luxury of having suitable fixtures cherry-picked for him or the safety net of being surrounded by a team of world-class players. Far from peripheral prodigy, McNeil is one of the key driving forces that makes Sean Dyche’s mid-table side tick – in fact, the only Burnley player to receive a higher average performance rating on Whoscored this season is James Tarkowski.
And the statistical encouragement doesn’t end there, either. At first glance, two goals and five assists may seem like a relatively mediocre return, but when McNeil’s season totals are compared to the rest of the Premier League’s English contingent, his contributions really do start to stand out. Just five English players have laid on more key passes than him this season, just one English player has completed more dribbles and just one English player has completed more accurate crosses. He’s even 17th for tackles.
Those black-and-white facts make you wonder why Henry Winter isn’t tweeting about the Burnley sensation with the same aplomb, but the differences in their footballing journeys again come to mind. While McNeil’s weaknesses have become as evident as his strengths through the sheer level of his exposure to Premier League football, chiefly his lack of natural pace for a modern-day winger, Foden’s remain somewhat disguised.
And yet, that shouldn’t be a stick to beat McNeil with, and neither should the fact he’s a key player for a mid-table Premier League club rather than a fringe figure for a top-end outfit. The level of responsibility undertaken should be just an important factor as ability – or more accurately, perceived potential – when we’re trying to determine the ceilings of young, still essentially unknown players.
On that subject too, we arguably aren’t even seeing McNeil at his best either. Of course, age is a factor in that with the Clarets youngster still just 20 years old, but it’s a question of positions too. Dyche is using McNeil in a manner which suits Burnley’s system but he lacks some of the natural traits to become a world-class wide-man and ultimately, his future may lay in a more central capacity.
McNeil showed as much against Bournemouth, when he found himself in a position to shoot rather than cross with his killer left foot. One touch and one strike, and the keeper was well beaten – the youngster’s curler screaming past a helpless Aaron Ramsdale. Why can’t McNeil make a career out of peeling into those pockets, between the wing and central midfield and just on the edge of the penalty box, before unleashing long-range strikes into top corners? That would certainly be a fantastic weapon to add to England’s armoury.
Of course, we’ve jumped a few rungs there. For the time being at least, McNeil is still a winger and one with a deadly delivery at that. But the real question here, assuming he does reserve one spot on the plane for a young player whose true time with England may still be some way into the future, is how Gareth Southgate perceives the situation when drawing up his squad for the Euros.
Does he go for a player in Foden whose potential is clearly vast but his limits remain unknown? Or does he opt for an alternative in McNeil who’s been thrust into the limelight every weekend for better or worse, and more often than not come out smelling rather rosy?
In short, it’s a case of imagination versus reality – here’s hoping for McNeil’s sake that Southgate’s a realist.