The Manchester United midfielder put in a bright second-half display as England toiled in their final group game, but will he be in Gareth Southgate’s starting lineup for the knockouts?

So, England are through to the Euro 2024 knockouts, but it hasn’t been pretty. Most fans will be heading into the latter stages of the competition far from confident about this team’s chances.

A goalless draw against Slovenia saw them advance as winners of Group C, but once again they struggled to create much of note. It was much the same as it had been against Serbia and Denmark, at least in part because 10 of the 11 players who started last time out were in the team again.

Manager Gareth Southgate was never going to rip everything up and start again. That’s why calls to switch to a three-man defence with Bukayo Saka at left wing-back, or drop Phil Foden for Anthony Gordon, or throw Adam Wharton into central midfield were nothing more than pipe dreams for more adventurous fans back home and writers on these pages. Subtle tweaks were always more likely.

There was widespread indignation when reports broke earlier in the week that the only change from the Denmark game would be Conor Gallagher coming in for Trent Alexander-Arnold. But the truth is that even though England were hardly convincing against Slovenia on Tuesday, Southgate again won’t change too much for the next round – if he changes anything at all.

There is now, however, the very real possibility that Kobbie Mainoo could start in midfield. After a bright second-half display against Slovenia, calls are increasing for the teenager to play.

But did he actually do enough to warrant a starting place?

England certainly looked brighter on the ball after Mainoo replaced Gallagher. They moved the ball more quickly and with an urgency that had been less obvious in the first half, and Mainoo was heavily involved.

It is impossible to say for sure how much of that was specifically down to Mainoo, and how much was because England’s players had been told at the break to up their game with time running out to find the goal they needed if they were to guarantee top spot in the group.

But that shouldn’t take anything away from Mainoo’s display. He was lively, energetic and constantly looked to get on the ball. It was a stark contrast to how Gallagher had performed.

The Chelsea man was largely anonymous – it is genuinely difficult to think of a significant or telling contribution he made before his half-time withdrawal. In fairness, not many of England’s players made any, but Gallagher was still particularly quiet.

He touched the ball just 24 times, was successful with 17 of his 20 attempted passes, and only completed three of his five passes in the final third. And he wasn’t exactly taking up positions that you’d expect to find a central midfielder who might help solve England’s problems with progressing play through the middle of the pitch. (Spoiler: he didn’t solve those problems.)

Conor Gallagher touches vs Slovenia

Southgate said after the game that Gallagher had been included in the team because he “presses well”, but he made no tackles or interceptions, and won possession just once in his 45 minutes on the pitch. Meanwhile, he committed twice the number of fouls.

Of course, pressing ability isn’t just about directly winning the ball back, but more about contributing to the team’s overall effectiveness without the ball. However, England won the ball in the final third just twice with Gallagher on the pitch and neither of those regains led to a chance.

Mainoo was introduced at half-time because, Southgate later said, “we felt his control of the ball would help us.” It certainly did that.

England had even more possession after the break (79%) than they did in the first half (68.5%), and it wasn’t only sterile, unthreatening possession.

They entered the final third 42 times in the second half compared to 30 times in the first. They had 18 touches in the opposition box after the break compared to just 10 before it.

Again, it isn’t easy to say exactly how much of that was directly down to Mainoo, but he was involved heavily in just about everything they did, and he got on the ball all over the pitch, which will have helped move the Slovenia defence around.

Kobbie Mainoo touches vs Slovenia

He had 41 touches, completed 33 of his 34 passes, including 13 out of 14 in the final third (a reminder here that Gallagher completed three of five attempted passes in the final third). As Slovenia dropped deeper, they struggled to get out of their own half, and Mainoo won the ball back four times (to Gallagher’s one).

Some of this will have been circumstantial, and perhaps Gallagher would have impressed more had he been the one coming on at half-time against a tiring, unadventurous Slovenia side.

But Mainoo is more comfortable on the ball than Gallagher, and England certainly looked better on the ball with him on the pitch.

In the first half, Slovenia had successfully funnelled most of England’s play out to their left, where they had been so poor in their first two games. Before the break, 49.2% of England’s attacking touches came down that flank, compared to 31.4% on the right.

England did look far more threatening down their left side this time out, with Foden rotating constantly with Jude Bellingham and Kieran Trippier to create space. They even had the ball in the back of the Slovenia net after some good play down their left, only to be denied by the linesman’s flag.

But when this England team do manage to progress down the left, it usually means at least one of Foden and Bellingham are out wide, further from goal than is ideal. It was clear that they needed to use their right side more after the break to allow these two key players to operate centrally a little more often.

After Mainoo’s introduction, England got the ball out to the right flank far more frequently, with 40.3% of their attacking touches coming down that wing after the break. There was more balance to the team.

England attacking thirds vs Slovenia first half
England attacking thirds vs Slovenia second half

Slovenia’s defenders doubled up on Saka all night, and individually he struggled to impact the game as a result. But with more time on the pitch alongside Mainoo, there were signs that they could develop an understanding which could help get more out of the Arsenal winger.

It was a real problem that 23 of the 34 passes Saka received all night came from right-back Kyle Walker, and of all the midfield options available to Southgate, it does feel as though Mainoo would be most able to get the ball out to the wing through the midfield.

It’s no coincidence that Saka’s replacement, Cole Palmer, had almost as many touches (22) after his 71st-minute introduction as Gallagher had in the entire first half.

However, for all the possession England had and the bright moments Mainoo had on the ball, the team still had the same number of shots (six) as they had managed in the first half, and the same number of shots from inside the box (three). What’s more, the quality of those chances was far lower after the break; they generated 0.6 xG in the first half, and then after the break their six shots were worth a pitiful 0.2 xG.

This will at least in part be down to Slovenia’s low block – they crowded the box more and more as the game went on, chasing the clean sheet that would secure their passage to the knockout stage of a major tournament for the first time in their history.

But it’s an ongoing problem for England. Their 2.19 xG from their three group stage games is the third-lowest of all teams at Euro 2024.

But only Germany (95) and Spain (69) have entered the final third more times than England (67), and only five teams have played more passes that broke the opposition’s defensive line than them (25). Turning possession in good areas into chances has been the biggest problem at this tournament, and it would be a big ask of 19-year-old Mainoo to fix that.

England defensive line-breaking passes Euro 2024

There is also the consideration of England’s next opponents. With England now set to face Slovakia, that probably increases the chance of Mainoo starting given England will likely dominate the ball as they did in that second half against Slovenia. As Mainoo showed in England’s final group game, he can make important contributions in that kind of game.

Mainoo wasn’t even playing for United at the start of the season, but he could yet play a key role for England at Euro 2024.

Our football newsletter ‘Stat, Viz, Quiz’ is going all in on Euro 2024 this summer, so sign up to receive exclusive content. You should also follow our social accounts over on XInstagramTikTok and Facebook.