It is always difficult to know how much to read into these mismatches, the type of imbalance in talent and ability that is normally saved for the early rounds of the FA Cup. A trip to a mountain-top microstate is no kind of litmus test at international level. Any conclusions that can be drawn are usually torn up by the time of the next tournament. “Well done, they’re Andorra.”
For Gareth Southgate and his England players though, this stroll to a 5-0 victory against the 156th-ranked side in the world at the Estadi Nacional was one of a diminishing number of games before next year’s World Cup. Qatar may be the last opportunity for this group of players – including survivors of Southgate’s first game in charge five years ago – to make good on their promise.
As that tournament comes into view, the games leading up to it grow in importance, each a little more significant than the last. And despite the modest level of opposition, this could be remembered as an important night for two players whose European Championship did not go entirely to plan. Jadon Sancho, for one, can be pleased with his evening’s work, especially given how much pre-match scrutiny he faced.
Southgate is renowned for his man-management more than anything else but broke away from his playbook by questioning Sancho’s place in this squad upon its announcement last week. The admission that his performances since joining Manchester United had perhaps not warranted a spot ahead of others could suggest some doubts over him within the England set-up.
It was more likely a show of faith. Though Sancho was trusted to only start once during the summer, Southgate was not merely paying lip service to the young winger’s ability when talking of how much Southgate and his staff had “invested” in him. Southgate was an early investor, if anything, calling Sancho up only a few games into his senior career with Borussia Dortmund.
Sancho was never going to repay that faith in one go in a qualifier against Andorra, but two assists on top of a performance that sparkled at times is a start. Switching between the left and right flanks, granted the type of positional freedom and influence in the attack that has been lacking in his early days at Old Trafford, Sancho appeared altogether more confident, comfortable and composed, particularly to set up Ben Chilwell’s opening goal.
“It’s the type of game we need players good in one-vs-one situations, between the lines, with freedom to play,” Southgate said of Sancho’s selection before kick-off. “We want to see them try things.” Sancho took those words and ran with them. Still only 21-years-old, this could prove to be the fresh start that his international career needed after a less than ideal summer.
Phil Foden’s summer was also a strange one. The Manchester City youngster occupied the right-hand side of the attack at first – the position once earmarked for Sancho, no less – but a pair of middling performances against Croatia and Scotland meant that he lost momentum while momentum only built behind his replacement, Bukayo Saka. Foden was not seen again until the late stage of the semi-final, then a foot injury kept him out of the Wembley showpiece.
Southgate hinted earlier in this camp that Foden would have had a role to play against Italy, perhaps from the start, and this performance in Andorra showed the difference he might have made. After his star turn in the meeting of the Premier League’s two best teams at Anfield last Sunday, Foden was head and shoulders above every player on the pitch at the Estadi Nacional. What’s more, he impressed from a different position.
From the left of a midfield three, Foden orchestrated England’s attack throughout, picking and choosing his line-breaking passes at will. Of course, superior opponents would not have allowed him to find his teammates in dangerous positions as frequently, but such is his ability that at least a couple always come off. The ball for Saka’s goal, England’s second, was exquisite.
It is a role that we may see more of him in over the weeks and months to come. Pep Guardiola has only recently been able call upon Foden due to that foot injury and is still configuring his new-look attack. A central midfield berth is a possibility. “He can play in five positions and in every position he will play extraordinary,” Guardiola recently said of Foden’s versatility, “because he is an extraordinary player”.
Southgate could soon have a similar headache but perhaps it will be a pleasant one to have. Foden in a three-man midfield could solve some of England’s issues with creativity in the middle of the park while also squeezing someone of Sancho’s profile in the attack. By the time Qatar comes around, that may be a fanciful idea. But if it is a potential way forward then, despite the standard of opposition, this walkover will have been worthwhile.