Phil Foden had attracted infamy on his previous brush with Iceland. Having made his England debut against them at the beginning of the season, the decision he took with his teammate, Mason Greenwood, to invite two local women to the team hotel in Reykjavik, breaking coronavirus protocols, led to serious trouble.
The pair were effectively banned for the four matches that followed and it added up to a horrible false start. Foden, though, is now back in the fold and this was the night when he kickstarted his career at this level.
A note of context. The Iceland team that pitched up at Wembley for a Nations League dead rubber were broken and depleted, having lost six of seven matches previously this season – including the Euro 2020 play-off against Hungary. They were marking the end of the managerial tenure of Erik Hamren and, with a starting XI compromising of players from unfashionable clubs, it was always going to be an exercise of England’s attack versus their defence. England could only beat what was in front of them and Foden was in the mood to shine, to advertise a talent that has long been signposted.
The 20-year-old midfielder enjoyed himself with the ball at his twinkle toes, frequently proving too quick and elusive for his markers. He showcased his touches and skill and having set up the opening goal for Declan Rice with a viciously whipped free-kick, he took over in the closing stages against an Iceland team that had been reduced to 10 men after Birkir Mar Sævarsson’s dismissal. Foden struck twice to add the gloss to England’s victory, both goals swept home with his left foot. The first came from close range after an incision by the substitute Jadon Sancho, while the second was threaded into the bottom corner from outside the area. It was a belter.
Gareth Southgate could reflect upon a number of fine performances from young players, even if the paucity of the opposition could not be ignored. Bukayo Saka, the 19-year-old from Arsenal, was once again a threat from left wing-back, even if he missed a glorious chance for 5-0, nodding wide from a Foden cross, and Mason Mount, who is 21 and scored the second, was forward-thinking from a role in central midfield. Yet it was a night that belonged to Foden.
Southgate had made a statement to the Premier League’s managers, some of whom, he admitted beforehand, were putting “huge pressure” on their players not to turn out for internationals, particularly those with little riding on them. The lineup that he picked represented the strongest available to him. Why should he bow to their wishes, with matches short before the Euro next summer?
Southgate restricted his experimentation to using what he has described as “two No 10s” – Foden and Jack Grealish, who was good too – in the spaces around Harry Kane. He had played the same way in Sunday’s defeat against Belgium and it meant that England started with a pair of roaming inside forwards, rather than wider attackers; the emphasis more on finesse than speed.
After a cagey start, they took control when Rice used the pace on Foden’s free-kick to guide the ball into the far corner. It was the 21-year-old’s first international goal. Mount’s orders were to attack – this was no game for a double midfield pivot – and, when he got into the area midway through the first half, he finished smartly. Saka created the chance with a cross from the left and the ball reached Mount after poor defending ffrom Iceland and a poke by Kane.
England were slicker, sharper and comfortable on the ball, which ought not to have come as a surprise given the level of the opposition. Foden’s hunger for goals has struck Southgate and he might have scored twice before the interval only to be denied by the goalkeeper, Ogmundur Kristinsson. The first effort had featured a touch from a Harry Maguire pass and a burst that left Hjortur Hermannsson trailing in his wake. Iceland struggled to get close to him all evening.
Saka was prominent, too, for the third England game in a row, working Kristinsson on 22 minutes after a Grealish cut-back. This camp could scarcely have gone any better for Saka, who did plenty to advance his claim for a starting place ahead of Ben Chilwell.
The manager has stressed that it is the personnel in his 3-4-3 rather than the system itself that determines the tactical outlook and, with Mount and Saka playing instead of the injured Jordan Henderson and Chilwell, the dial was turned towards attack. Saka was simply too quick for Sævarsson, who had caught him in the 11th minute to collect a first booking. It was late and painful and when the right-sided Iceland defender pulled back Saka on 54 minutes he was off.
England wanted more goals, nobody more so than Kane, who twice wasted opportunities in the first half. He had a shot blocked in the second and also banged a free-kick into the wall. It was not his night. Foden would show him the way and he will now remember Iceland for rather more positive reasons.