Why Mainoo and Palmer were the beneficiaries of another dour night for England at Euro 2024

After experimenting with three different partners next to Declan Rice this tournament, Gareth Southgate can finally stick rather than twist again after a tidy 45-minute appearance from Kobbie Mainoo on Tuesday evening.

Having started Trent Alexander-Arnold with Rice for England’s two opening matches — a move generally acknowledged to have backfired — Southgate turned to trusted scurrier Conor Gallagher for the 0-0 draw against Slovenia in Cologne.

The idea was for Gallagher — a midfielder by trade, unlike Alexander-Arnold — to break up the play, buzz around and provide a solid platform on which England’s rich array of attacking talents could then flourish.

Yet, as with the Alexander-Arnold experiment that left Southgate pining for Kalvin Phillips, this selection did not work for the England manager. The Chelsea captain struggled to exert himself, did not win a single tackle and failed to lift a below-par England as they toiled again. It took Gallagher 10 minutes and 48 seconds to even touch the ball. When the half-time whistle blew, you could have forgiven for forgetting he had been on the pitch.

After that poor half, Southgate hooked Gallagher and replaced him with Mainoo.

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Gallagher struggled in his 45 minutes of action against Slovenia (Pablo Morano/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

The Manchester United 19-year-old had struggled in England’s final warm-up against Iceland earlier this month but was an immediate upgrade. His introduction helped inject a spark and some much-needed tempo to England’s sluggish play.

Mainoo was eager to get on the ball, linked the play and gave a previously disjointed England more balance.

In his 45 minutes on the pitch, Mainoo completed 33 out of 34 passes, with an accuracy of 97 per cent (higher than Gallagher’s 85 per cent in the first half) and had almost double the number of touches of the ball (40 to Gallagher’s 24), two of which were in Slovenia’s penalty box.

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As well as Mainoo, Southgate brought on Cole Palmer for his first minutes of the tournament with 20 minutes left to play and the Chelsea forward also caught the eye, showing trickery, poise and confidence.

“Every time England made a change, they got better,” Gary Neville said after the game. “Mainoo will start the next game. Southgate thought Gallagher was the option for the energy, but it was obvious we needed someone on there to get us playing, and Adam Wharton is capable of doing that as well.

“The more substitutions we made, the less rigid we looked. We looked so basic in the first half, it was a struggle to watch that, but we moved forward in the second half. We did not get the result, but there were glimpses of what we can be.”

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Mainoo’s arrival increased the intensity and sped up England’s laborious play.

A minute into the second half, he collected the ball from Phil Foden, passed it to Jude Bellingham on the left wing and made a quick sprint in behind, before retrieving it again from England’s No 10.

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Straight away, this showed greater attacking intent and put England on the front foot.

Two minutes later, Mainoo linked cleverly with Bukayo Saka down the right before teeing up an onrushing Bellingham in Slovenia’s box, creating a rare opening for England.

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All within five minutes of his introduction, Mainoo was seen demanding the ball from midfield partner Declan Rice, a show of confidence, before laying it off to Bellingham again with a perfectly weighted pass.

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In this example below, Mainoo again looked to push England up the pitch, turn the Slovenia defence and play Saka in behind — where the Arsenal winger can cause the most damage — with an intricate one-two.

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As England struggled to break down the stubborn Slovenia defence, it was again the two substitutes Mainoo and Palmer who offered a creative spark in the grab below.

Palmer jinked past his man, before slipping the ball to Mainoo who backheeled it into the path of Bellingham, who lost control as the promising move broke down. Only when England started moving the ball quickly, with neat triangles and runs off the ball, did they look like breaking down Slovenia’s deep defence.

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“Mainoo looked very comfortable out there,” Roy Keane said after the match.

“By the end of this game, we would all be surprised if Mainoo doesn’t start the next game. I always say with young players, they have no fear — just go with them sometimes.”

Yes, a goalless draw against the group’s lowest-ranked team was underwhelming and frustration boiled over in the stands as boos rang out and a handful of beer cups were thrown at Southgate by the England fans. However, the second half in Cologne was an improvement on the awful first and should give England something they can build on in the knockout stage.

As attention now turns to the business end of Euro 2024, Mainoo and Palmer have provided a glimmer of optimism in what was a gloomy group stage for England.

(Top photo: Eddie Keogh – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

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