Foden to the Fore as Iceland Get a Trouncing

Getty Images/Chloe Knott

England 4-0 Iceland

England concluded an ultimately unsuccessful Nations League campaign with a commanding win over ten-man Iceland in their last match until March 2021.

Declan Rice was questioned recently about his friendship with Mason Mount, which was forged when they joined the Chelsea academy together aged eight. To play Jack Grealish or Mount had been posed as a sort of dilemma that Gareth Southgate must solve, until the recent win over the Republic of Ireland. Mount and Grealish both started together in that one, and Rice was asked whether their link-up play was a threat to his personal bond with Mount. Rice giggled, declaring: “Nothing can get between me and Mase!”

On a night when both Rice and his best mate Mount scored important goals to set England on their way to victory, it was Mount, Grealish and young Phil Foden who shone the brightest in what was an utterly dominant performance against admittedly abject opposition. Iceland looked slightly in awe of the grand — albeit empty — venue in what was their first ever visit to Wembley. Against them, the cultured, creative, capable trio got to work, rotating the ball quickly, bringing others into play, and turning briskly to escape their markers.

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Speaking to after the match, Grealish explained how important these attributes are. “Me and Mason and Phil base our game on receiving the ball in tight areas, turning with it, running at the defence. That’s what you need if you want to be a top team and win major tournaments,” he said. By extension, it’s what England have sorely lacked at past major tournaments.

Yet it was through the all-too-familiar route of a set piece that the Three Lions took the lead — Declan Rice glancing the ball into the corner with a smart header. Or, on second viewing, his shoulder. Whatever body part he’d scored with, it was a lovely moment; his first goal for England. Wide expanses of the Wembley turf suddenly opened up as Iceland’s usual defensive shape disintegrated. England profited through Grealish and Foden’s direct sprints towards the box. Mount took advantage of a lucky ricochet to tuck the ball coolly into the corner past goalkeeper Ögmundur Kristinsson — who plies his trade for Greek side Olympiacos.

Just after the interval, a bad night got even worse for one of the handful of Iceland veterans who had stunned England at Euro 2016. Full-back Birkir Sævarsson received a second yellow for disrupting a fast England counter. In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter one iota. England broke countless times throughout the game, and Iceland weren’t going to take home any points from this encounter whether they were 11 men or ten. Off he plodded.

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Phil Foden had squandered a big chance for a maiden international goal in the first half, but this only acted as fuel as it turned out. Two expertly taken low finishes put the game to bed late in the match, adding gloss to the scoreline. It’s been a while since England last did that.

While England started as they meant to go on, winning possession back with obsessive intent and running at Iceland at pace, it wasn’t until Rice’s goal — quickly followed by Mount’s — that Gareth Southgate’s side really tested goalkeeper in any meaningful way.

Much has been made of Harry Kane’s goal contributions in the white of Tottenham this season, but for England his luck has been out. His last goal for the Three Lions: a whole year ago yesterday. Since then, there have been general elections and presidential elections in both the UK and US respectively. Desperate to grab one for himself, he came a whisker away in the first half, almost grazing the outside of the post with a shot he just about dug out from under his feet. Alas, the wait for his 33rd England goal continues.

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England returned to the second half the same team in terms of personnel, but their intensity had dropped noticeably. Paradoxically, only after Sævarsson was given his marking orders and Iceland dropped even deeper did England click back into gear and reassume their clear superiority. The red card, in some respects, was a shame. It gave those who bemoan international football — for whom England mediocrity is a peculiar turn-on — something to groan about. England weren’t good. They were playing against ten men. Well, they were good, and they were good from start to finish.

Ben Chilwell always faced an uphill task to be included in proceedings after going off with a back injury against Belgium on Sunday. In his place, Bukayo Saka came back in to earn his fourth cap. Saka used to be a winger, and the positions he took up in this game showed just why. Brilliant from start to finish, the Arsenal teenager has pretty much come from nowhere to stake a claim for being England’s best left-back, ahead of Chilwell. His cleanly struck volley in the second half was gathered well by experienced goalkeeper Hannes Halldórsson, brought on at the break presumably to try and keep the score down. It was he, after all, who England so struggled to beat on that night in Nice in 2016.

Saka, by the way, has had as many chances to open his international account in his first four matches as most full-backs will get in their first 40. Maybe more. It’s the positions this Arsenal starlet gets into that make him as exciting a prospect as he is.

The affair became ever more open, and so ever easier for the hosts. Manchester City’s Phil Foden has clocked up considerably less game-time than fellow playmakers Mount and Grealish this last week. As those two made way, Foden stayed on for his first full 90 minutes as an England senior player. And so for the way his night turned out, he has his manager to thank. On 80 minutes, after good link-up play with substitute Jadon Sancho, he fired home a low first-time finish to score his first international goal.

But the real moment of magic, both from him and on the night overall, came four minutes later. Receiving a simple pass from another sub, Harry Winks, he turned, beat a man, and unleashed an arrowed shot into the same bottom corner he’d found only moments before. This one was from outside the box — a superb goal from a man many in this country have felt is a very special player for quite some time. Southgate took his time to ingratiate Foden into the senior fold, to the point where it was years ago that pundits were first calling for his inclusion. He repaid the manager here, that’s for sure.

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And so another England match — and year — drew to a familiar close: the Three Lions playing for time against inferior opposition at Wembley. But the 11 months that preceded this game have been far from familiar. Southgate has dealt with so many events and situations — most of them negatives — both on and off the pitch.

On the pitch, England have been wildly inconsistent in 2020, but the calendar year at least ended with its first flurry of goals. Where do England find themselves in their progress? Well, it’s probably best to ask Iceland’s outgoing manager Erik Hamrén about that. Asked whether England could realistically win silverware at the Euros or the 2022 World Cup, he suggested: “Maybe you need to wait four or five years.”

Is that a long time to wait, or should England take that any day of the week? It’s hard to tell.

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