There is something bewitching about Phil Foden on the move towards goal, flickering between challenges and the only certainty that, at some point, someone will have to bring him down through plain misjudgment or sheer necessity.
Finally, three minutes after half-time he was at it. Gareth Southgate had come up with the good idea to switch his wingers and that would play no small part in two England goals in the space of five minutes. First there was Foden, coming off the left wing, slipping past the red shirts with those small adjustments to the ball’s direction that can be so deceptive.
Suddenly a game of slow tempo was energised with two of those official Fifa line-break metrics in the space of little more than a second. Foden had Connor Roberts hanging on his shoulder and then convinced Joe Rodon to jab a leg out at a ball that was no longer there. Within seconds, Foden had gained 20 yards and there was a real sense of advantage for England.
The foul on Foden won the free-kick that Marcus Rashford would spear from the left past the Wales goalkeeper Danny Ward’s gloves and into the top corner of the goal. A summit had been crested, something in the Wales resistance broke and like a great story coming to an end, England were on a different arc at this tournament. This British collision had been a good tale while it lasted and now Southgate’s players would embark alone to explore the rest of the tournament.
Within a minute, Foden had scored the first World Cup goal of his young career, his third in international football on the occasion of his 20th cap. He stole in at the back post, the spare man untended by a Wales defence stretched to breaking point. There is something of the ghost of a little Victorian boy about Foden, the innocent round white face and the propensity to appear from nowhere.
“In the end, players make these decisions work,” Southgate said of the half-time decision to switch Foden and Rashford. “Watching lots of games at this World Cup, the big players have created big moments. In the first half the attackers didn’t do enough but in the second half they really did.”
This had not been a simple night for Foden. England had begun at what is now a familiar pace for the post-Russia 2018, post-Nations League 2022 apocalypse England. They are a weigh-each-pass team, a conservative England that looks at the angle and turns back to reconsider.
That is not the ideal environment for Foden who is part of the hyper-grooved Manchester City machine where the ball is played first time, and the whole ensemble moves inexorably up the pitch to play one-touch football in the faces of the opposition. For long periods of the first half, Foden was a pass too far. The little triangular exchanges that define his club football were not on and he was left out on the touchline to manage as best as possible.
That is the conundrum that Southgate faces as England move into the round of 16 at the weekend. Does he return to the speed on the attack of Bukayo Saka, and Raheem Sterling, or does he stay with Foden’s No 10 skillset exported to the wing? It is a question that will occupy minds up to Sunday's Senegal game. Foden had the most important 20 minutes of his England career thus far, at the start of the second half. In the past he has not been someone on whom Southgate has felt able to rely.
Foden’s only international goals previous to this had come in one game – against Iceland in a 4-0 win at Wembley two years previous. He has not been a player for whom Southgate has easily found a place as the high-intensity, high-speed 4-3-3 formation has come to prominence. Yet he is one of the great triumphs of the modern English academy system, a 10-year-old when England were dumped out of the 2010 World Cup finals by the great Germany generation of the era and all that change began.
A player polished and smoothed in the modern fashion – the better coaches and better pitches of England’s new high-spec football factory. A World Cup winner himself at 17 in India in 2017 when all the pieces started to fall into place. As Rashford scored a third goal for England, and Wales collapsed, so this must have felt to Foden more like playing for Manchester City. A wave of high-quality substitutes. An opposition who just could not live with the intensity.
The question of where Foden goes from here at this World Cup is also the question of what England do from here. Thus far in Qatar they have been in a sceptical, strategic, not-yet-lads, frame of mind. They cautiously checked out Wales as they had four days earlier the United States. In this late-Southgate era, it seems unlikely that they will change as a second World Cup opens up to them.
Southgate had launched Foden for his first start since Germany in September when the players was taken off before the comeback began in the last 30 minutes. The evidence was that Southgate was not convinced by what he might have to offer. It is not always a comfortable place to be anointed as the potential saviour of the team, as demanded by a restless public, although that had been Foden’s status in the build-up to the Wales game. Elevated by his absence from the side so far, he finally got his shot and he took it.
The England team can hurtle through epochs in the space of weeks. Now at the end of November, it feels like Southgate has Foden in the best form he has ever enjoyed for his country. For one of the English game’s prodigies it has been a slow start. Potentially three games from a World Cup final, his tournament has begun at last.