Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho rise above squabble to shine for England


Start the bus. Download the boarding passes. Count the pointless yellow cards (two of them, for the record). Mission just about accomplished. England’s footballers may take some happy memories from this 5-0 defeat of Andorra.

The Pyrenees are beautifully rugged. They make a fine brandy. The players deserve credit for keeping their cool and getting the job done. But it seems fair to say this is not a game that will live on fondly in the highlights reel, a night of snark, squabbles and the odd heavy tackle on a rough-looking rubber pitch.

In many ways this was a thankless, credit-free mission. Whatever England managed to do here, whatever impact an individual might make would always be dismissed as village kick-about stuff, flat-track punching down.

But these games have always been played. And someone always has to make the difference. International football is like this: a series of staccato moments where you either seize the day or you don’t.

Here it was two of England’s younger more outrageously talented players who made the difference: Phil Foden, who has looked in prime form; and Jadon Sancho, who, to put it politely, hasn’t.

Foden produced something of a curio, a performance of lovely, subtle, incisive passing from a deeper position. The early exchanges were tight and a little tetchy. For a while you wondered where the incision would come from.

At which point Foden started doing something different, lurking in a withdrawn inside-right position, keeping himself away from the red-shirted double bolt. And suddenly he was fading a succession of lofted, whispered passes from right to left – hard flat Hoddle‑type stuff, picking out the runs of the white shirts.

With 17 minutes gone he conjured up the telling pass from that same space, caressed in a lovely curling arc over the defence and midfield. Sancho took the ball on his chest, then showed fine awareness to flick it back to Ben Chilwell. He smashed it into the net for his first England goal. But it was Foden’s goal, too, his creation, his act of string-pulling.

For Sancho this was a first assist since May. What’s eating Jadon? Probably not much. It is easy to forget he is still only 20. At Dortmund he was given a detailed brief, told exactly where to run, what combinations to make. He thrived, as young players will, in a genuine coaching environment.

At Manchester United Sancho has looked like what he is, a new player being asked to invent his own patterns as he goes along, with a manager who has no significant record of coaching and improving young attacking players.

In his early days at Manchester City, Pep Guardiola was so obsessed with detail he ended up painting a spot on the training pitch and ordering Raheem Sterling to stand there during certain phases. It seems unlikely Ole Gunnar Solskjær has had the chalk out just yet.

As for Foden it will be tempting to see some kind of tactical shift here, signs of a Southgate 2.0 creative blueprint. But it isn’t really that. Foden’s fluency against Andorra was a hunch, a necessary step in the most unusual of games.

Against Liverpool last Sunday Foden played as a dribbler, attacking James Milner. Here he showed off his glorious passing range. But it felt like something else too, a glimpse of some other world where footballers of this level are allowed to improvise, to look for spaces to play rather then being tied to the relentless collisions of systems-football. This was a throwback Foden, Foden of the square screen exploring his maverick qualities.

A few minutes before half-time he did it again from that same space to make England’s second goal. As the red shirts hung back Foden was able to stop, measure the wind speed and play an aristocratic in-out through pass to find Bukayo Saka’s fine run on the right. The finish was fierce, the ball spanked straight through Josep Gómes.

We also got that glimpse of Sancho. Early on he had an open door here. Jesús Rubio, Andorra’s right-back, is 27. He plays amateur football in the Andorran top tier. At one point Sancho performed a kind of low-key Irish dance over the ball, then poked it between Rubio’s legs, haring off while he was still untangling his ankles.

It is fascinating to see this kind of mismatch, mortal human flesh and muscle up against genuine fast‑twitch precision. And Sancho did look good here, providing a string of crosses and nudges inside. Shortly after half-time he set up England’s third goal, for Tammy Abraham, then left the field before James Ward‑Prowse and Jack Grealish added the fourth and fifth.

For Sancho it was a timely reminder in a thin time with United. He has such distinctive skills, is so creative in his angles and his manipulation of the ball. His talent isn’t in doubt. The question is simply how to unlock it.