How Kobbie Mainoo can be England's Frenkie de Jong

DORTMUND, Germany– In what is fast becoming his customary style, Kobbie Mainoo is threatening without fuss or fanfare to solve a problem that’s arguably blighted England for years. Wednesday’s Euro 2024 semifinal against Netherlands promises to be the teenager’s toughest test yet, but the Three Lions are hoping they have finally found a midfielder capable of dictating play in the biggest matches of all.

It’s no secret to anyone who’s 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 throw Conor Gallagher in against Slovenia. When Gallagher floundered, Mainoo got his chance and England haven’t looked back.

They hardly found a vibrant rhythm since, scrambling past round-of-16 opponents Slovakia in extra time and then Switzerland on penalties in the quarterfinals, but Mainoo has been one of their brightest players and the debate over who should partner Declan Rice in midfield — one that raged for the Euros’ first fortnight — is conclusively over.

One moment against Switzerland summed up the composure and quality Mainoo brings. Midway through the first half of Saturday’s quarterfinal, the 19-year-old did something England midfielders simply never do. John Stones played a pass into central midfield towards Mainoo, who rushed back to meet the ball. The pass was actually misplaced, but Mainoo reacted in a flash, adjusting his body to allow the ball to run across him.

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

In watching such highlights, it’s easy to forget this is a youngster earning his sixth cap. In fact, Mainoo has only made 35 appearances as a senior professional at Manchester United, where he at least has a good grounding in being the calming presence while the storm rages around him. Yet the comfort he exudes on the international stage has not taken his teammates by surprise.

Defender and United teammate Luke Shaw told ESPN: “No [I’m not surprised] because he did that at Manchester. He came out of nowhere and took to it with ease.

“Everyone knows his qualities. It was just about getting him in the team and I think once he was, everyone knew he was going to show his qualities and how important he could be for the team. That’s a big pat on his back really to say to him is what he’s done is really good. He just needs to keep that level up.”

Mainoo only made his full Premier League debut in November after sustaining an ankle injury during a preseason friendly against Real Madrid. His England debut came in March against Brazil but ahead of a huge semifinal in Dortmund, Mainoo is now arguably one of the first names on Southgate’s teamsheet.

“The growth is scary really,” said Shaw. “It has been really quick 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 came away in preseason — he was unfortunate to get an injury that maybe set him back a bit — but it didn’t stop him. I think his qualities have shown. I don’t see him as a young lad anymore: I think he is one of our main players.

“For me, he has got the world at his feet, he can do everything. He just needs to stay level-headed, keep working hard and the world’s his oyster. He can honestly achieve anything.”

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

Comparisons are inevitable, and there is a temptation to suggest England have found a midfield metronome capable of putting opponents to the sword in the manner the Three Lions have suffered all too often in the past. While Southgate has been scrambling to balance his midfield in recent weeks, the problem dates back much further.

Too often, England’s inability to retain the ball in midfield has allowed big tournament games to slip away from them. Marco Verratti and Jorginho swung the Euro 2020 final in Italy’s favour as they increasingly controlled the middle of the pitch. England became wasteful and conceded territory as a result, eventually losing on penalties.

Luka Modrić, ably supported by Marcelo Brozović, did the same for Croatia in their 2018 World Cup semifinal against Southgate’s side, turning the tide after falling behind to win a tense match in extra time. In 2012, it was Italy’s Andrea Pirlo pulling the strings as Roy Hodgson’s England chased shadows for 120 minutes during their quarterfinal defeat in Kiev before succumbing on penalties. Pirlo was so unflustered all evening that he even scored his spot kick with a Panenka.

In the middle of that run, Frenkie de Jong produced another midfield masterclass in the 2019 Nations League semifinal, as Netherlands reminded England of the sort of maturity and game management they habitually 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 fray this year), Southgate claimed: “We don’t have that sort of player in this country. I don’t think we develop that sort of player well through youth football and through academies. Other countries probably have a little bit more focus on that.”

Yet various England players seem to feel 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. He’s impressed me a lot. He’s someone who can manipulate the ball and help the team get up the pitch.

“His technique and receiving under pressure is very impressive. So young, but with so much potential. It’s an exciting time for England.”

Rice said: “I do have to say Kobbie has been unbelievable. For 19 years old, how much he runs around and how strong and physical he is, he’s been unreal.”

De Jong’s absence due to an ankle injury is a huge blow for Netherlands. They have become a more defensive outfit as a result — exhibiting the same conservatism for which Southgate has been criticised — and the 27-year-old watched on from the stands as his countrymen beat Turkey on Saturday to set up the clash with England. Like Southgate, head coach 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 go a long way to determining the team that makes Sunday’s final in Berlin. It is another big ask for Mainoo, but so far he’s been coming up with the answers.

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