Kobbie Mainoo is a player who defies expectations.
It’s not normal for an 18-year-old midfielder to make their Premier League debut at the heart of Manchester United’s midfield in an away trip to a raucous Goodison Park. It’s even less normal for the player to then be the best player on the pitch.
But Mainoo is not your normal 18-year-old.
There is a maturity to the academy graduate which belies his tender years. He possesses an assurance in possession which would not look out of place at La Masia in Barcelona. He combines skill and strength in equal measure, able to elegantly glide past an opposition midfielder with the ball, or shrug them off it if they try to do the same to him.
Mainoo’s short-passing is accurate and intricate, while his long-range passes are delivered crisply and cleanly. There’s a creativity to his game that he is yet to properly demonstrate at senior level, but keen followers of youth football will be all too familiar with.
There is even a potent goal threat, as demonstrated in yesterday’s pulsating 4-2 away win over Newport County in the FA Cup fourth round. Mainoo finished off a lovely move by United with a clinical first-time strike into the bottom corner, shown below.
First-ever United goal ✔️⚽️
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) January 29, 2024
It was Mainoo’s first senior goal for his boyhood club, amidst a season of firsts for the 18-year-old.
Though he has only made seven Premier League appearances in his debut season at this level, Mainoo has already demonstrated he is the exact type of midfielder that has been sorely missing at Old Trafford in recent years. It’s also the exact type which has been a glaring weakness for England for even longer.
Gareth Southgate should be making Mainoo’s next ‘first’ his debut in a Three Lions shirt, ahead of the international break in March. And he should be doing this because Mainoo should be a part of the England squad for this summer’s Euros in Germany. If you’re old enough, you’re good enough, Gareth.
England possess two-thirds of the perfect midfield trio.
Declan Rice is an excellent defensive midfielder, with an emphasis on ‘defensive’. The Arsenal player is an elite contributor off the ball but can struggle at times to impose himself in games with the ball.
Jude Bellingham is simply an excellent midfielder, period. The Birmingham boy has become a man in Madrid this year, elevating himself to one of Europe’s finest players. He has found most joy, for club and country, in an advanced role, however. If Rice is the number six for England, Bellingham is undoubtedly the number ten.
Which leaves us with the number eight position.
Southgate’s obvious preference for this role will be Kalvin Phillips, despite his complete lack of minutes this season for Manchester City. The midfielder’s loan to West Ham will provide more first-team opportunities but Phillips’ best performances have largely come as a defensive midfielder himself.
To play Phillips next to Rice is to waste Rice’s defensive dominance. The Arsenal midfielder’s profile, combined with Bellingham’s work-rate as a number ten, enables their manager to make a far braver decision in midfield than Phillips.
Southgate’s alternatives to Phillips are likely to be Jordan Henderson, James Ward-Prowse or Conor Gallagher. None of these three possess the complimentary selection of attributes to play alongside Rice and Bellingham that Mainoo does. None of them would thrive on the platform provided by England’s number six and number eight in the way the 18-year-old would.
The United midfielder’s ability to drift between a deep-lying playmaker and a creative box-to-box player makes him the ideal addition to England’s midfield triumvirate. He compliments Rice’s strengths perfectly – in the same way he does Casemiro’s – while he frees Bellingham of the responsibility of having to drop deep to help Southgate’s side progress the ball.
The connection Mainoo has already developed with the expected left-hand side of England’s team – Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford – at the club level only reinforces his suitability.
Southgate must use the friendly against Brazil in March as a trial for this trio. It would be a brave decision, but it’s one which could bring an end to fifty-eight years of pained expectation for England fans at major international tournaments.
And, as we’ve seen this year, if Mainoo is anything, he’s a player who defies expectations.