How Kobbie Mainoo can be England's Frenkie de Jong

DORTMUND, Germany — In what is fast becoming his usual style, Kobbie Mainoo is threatening without fanfare or fanfare to solve a problem that has undoubtedly plagued England for years. Wednesday's Euro 2024 semi-final against the Netherlands promises to be the teenager's toughest test yet, but the Three Lions hope they have finally found a midfielder capable of dictating play in the biggest games of all.

It is no secret to anyone who has watched them play that manager Gareth Southgate has been searching for a solution to balance England’s midfield throughout this tournament. The experiment of using defender Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield against Serbia and Denmark manifestly failed, leading him to put Conor Gallagher in midfield against Slovenia. When Gallagher faltered, Mainoo had his chance and England did not look back.

They have only just found a rhythm since, beating their last-16 opponents Slovakia in extra time and then Switzerland on penalties in the quarter-finals, but Mainoo has been one of their brightest players and the debate over who should partner Declan Rice in midfield – which raged on for the first fortnight of the Euros – is now firmly over.

One moment against Switzerland summed up the composure and quality that Mainoo brings. Midway through the first half of Saturday’s quarter-final, the 19-year-old did something that English midfielders simply never do. John Stones sent a pass into the middle of the pitch towards Mainoo, who ran back to receive the ball. The pass was actually poorly placed, but Mainoo reacted in an instant, adjusting his body to allow the ball to pass past him.

In that single move, without even touching the ball, Granit Xhaka and Remo Freuler were taken out of the game as Mainoo slid between them and England were suddenly playing forward.

Watching these highlights, it's easy to forget that this is a youngster making his sixth international appearance. Indeed, Mainoo has only made 35 senior appearances for Manchester United, where he at least has a good foundation to be a calming presence as the storm rages around him. However, the comfort he exudes on the international stage has not surprised his team-mates.

United defender and teammate Luke Shaw told ESPN: “No [I’m not surprised] Because he did it in Manchester. He came out of nowhere and adapted to it easily.

“Everyone knows his qualities. It was just a matter of bringing him into the team and I think once he did, everyone knew he was going to show his qualities and how important he could be for the team. It's a great recognition for him to say that what he's done is really good. He just needs to keep up that level.”

Mainoo made his Premier League debut in November, having suffered an ankle injury during a pre-season friendly against Real Madrid. His England debut came in March against Brazil, but ahead of a huge semi-final in Dortmund, Mainoo is arguably one of the first names in Southgate's line-up.

“The growth is really scary,” Shaw said. “It's been so fast for him. When I first saw Kobbie, I think he was in and out of the first team just training, but you could see the qualities he had.”

“Then he left in pre-season. He was unlucky to suffer an injury which perhaps set him back a bit, but that didn't stop him. I think his qualities have been demonstrated. I don't see him as a youngster anymore: I think he's one of our main players.

“For me, he has the world at his feet, he can do anything. He just needs to keep a cool head, keep working hard and the world will be at his feet. Honestly, he can achieve anything.”



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Against Switzerland, Mainoo won 100% of his tackles, completed 33 of 34 passes, won four of his five duels and had England’s highest individual xG (0.17). According to Opta, Mainoo’s 96% pass completion rate is the highest of any midfielder at a European Championship that the stats provider has recorded since 1980.

Comparisons are inevitable and there is a temptation to suggest that England have found a midfield metronome capable of testing their opponents, as the Three Lions have suffered too often in the past. While Southgate has been struggling to balance his midfield in recent weeks, the problem goes back much further.

Too often, England’s inability to retain the ball in midfield has allowed important games to slip away at major tournaments. Marco Verratti and Jorginho tilted the Euro 2020 final in Italy’s favour as they increasingly controlled the centre of the park. England wasted the ball and conceded territory as a result, eventually losing on penalties.

Luka Modrić, assisted by Marcelo Brozović, did the same for Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final against Southgate’s side, turning the result around from trailing to win a tense game in extra time. In 2012, it was Italy’s Andrea Pirlo who pulled the strings as Roy Hodgson’s England chased shadows for 120 minutes during their quarter-final defeat in Kiev before succumbing on penalties. Pirlo was so calm all night that he even scored his penalty with a flick of a Panenka.

Amidst that run, Frenkie de Jong delivered another midfield masterclass in the 2019 Nations League semi-final, as the Netherlands reminded England of the kind of maturity and game management they routinely lack in their engine room.

Two years ago, when discussing Joshua Kimmich's ability to do something similar for Germany (prior to Toni Kroos' return to the competition this year), Southgate said: “We don't have that type of player in this country. I don't think we develop that type of player well in youth football and in academies. Other countries probably focus a bit more on that.”

However, several England players seem to believe Mainoo could change that perception. Alexander-Arnold, who lost his place to Mainoo, said: “It's the first time I've seen him up close and personal. I've been very impressed by him. He's someone who can manipulate the ball and help the team move up the pitch.”

“His technique and ability to receive under pressure are impressive. He is very young, but has so much potential. It's an exciting time for England.”

Rice said: “I have to say Kobbie has been amazing. For a 19-year-old, the amount of running he does and how strong and physical he is, it's been incredible.”

De Jong’s absence due to an ankle injury is a blow to the Netherlands, who have become a more defensive-minded side, displaying the same conservatism for which Southgate has been criticised, and the 27-year-old watched from the stands as his compatriots beat Turkey on Saturday to set up the clash with England. Like Southgate, manager Ronald Koeman has been searching for answers, with Jerdy Schouten and Tijjani Reijnders sitting deep and Xavi Simons further forward against Turkey.

Whoever wins that midfield battle will be decisive in determining which team makes it to Sunday's final in Berlin. It's another big task for Mainoo, but so far he's found the answers.

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