It’s time to talk about Mason Mount. Hardly anybody is right now, something which should alarm the midfielder especially as England manager Gareth Southgate prepares to utilise a rare opportunity to experiment in Friday’s friendly against Australia at Wembley.
There was a solitary question about Mount’s omission from this latest England squad in Southgate’s news conference, occurring in the slipstream of wider conversations around Raheem Sterling’s absence, Bukayo Saka’s fitness and a deserved call-up for Jarrod Bowen.
Mount has not played for England since their World Cup quarterfinal defeat to France last December.
Pelvic and thigh injuries restricted his availability in March, June and September but he returned to the Manchester United team in good time for this latest international break only to be overlooked.
“Physically he’s getting back up to a level,” Southgate said. “He’s been an important player for us and we like him a lot. But I didn’t think he’d done enough to be in ahead of the others at this moment in time.”
Southgate has expended considerable credit on showing loyalty bordering on the excessive in retaining Harry Maguire amid his lack of playing time at United and Jordan Henderson after his controversial move to Saudi Arabia. Manchester City defender John Stones also made the cut despite not playing a single minute since the Community Shield on Aug. 6. (He did subsequently make his comeback from injury as a second-half substitute in Sunday’s defeat at Arsenal.)
Stones remains arguably England’s best centre-back, even though Pep Guardiola has been playing him in a deep-lying midfield role, but Henderson and Maguire are included for a combination of past achievements and their positive influence around the camp. It’s a criteria that would have at one time automatically extended to Mount given his importance for club and country.
Between 2019 and 2022, Mount played 105 Premier League games for Chelsea. Only 13 outfield players in the division played more. His combined tally of 44 goals and assists was the 14th best figure in those three seasons.
Across all competitions, Mount played 59 games in 2019-20 and a staggering 69 in 2020-21, including five of England’s seven matches on their way to the Euro 2020 final. In 2021-22, he made another 59 appearances before playing in four of England’s five matches at the World Cup. It may be that this heavy workload in recent years has taken a physical toll in 2023, manifesting in persistent injury problems that hampered the end of his Chelsea career and complicated his start to life at Old Trafford.
Although he often faced unfair social media criticism, managers have queued up to lavish praise on Mount to the extent it is no coincidence. Former Chelsea boss Frank Lampard could not speak highly enough of him. His successor, Thomas Tuchel, labelled Mount “the full package” and enjoyed working with him to the extent Bayern Munich explored a deal soon after Tuchel took over at the Allianz Arena. And United were sufficiently convinced to pay £60 million this summer for a player with one year left on his contract when many other Chelsea stars were departing for cut-priced fees driven by the Blues’ urgent need to comply with UEFA’s financial fair play rules.
Lampard often said Mount “set the press” for his team, a tireless work ethic Tuchel heartily embraced. United manager Erik ten Hag’s desire to implement a high-pressing style made Mount a logical pursuit in one regard, even if many supporters believed the money could be better spent on other areas of the team.
And Ten Hag appears to be still trying to find the right home for him. Is he a No. 8 or a No. 10? Can he play out wide? He is, perhaps, a victim of his own versatility. Against Brentford last weekend, Mount played as a No. 10 with Bruno Fernandes shunted out to the right. He went back out to the wing after half-time and ended with 37 touches in 63 minutes before being substituted.
United are in a deep, collective malaise at present which almost inevitably affected Mount but given the short 18-month turnaround between the 2022 World Cup and next summer’s Euro 2024 tournament, time is of the essence for the 24-year-old to establish himself. Because whereas Mount was once one of the first names on the team sheet at Chelsea and for England, the danger he now faces is that his country are threatening to evolve without him.
Southgate has been fixated on a 4-3-3 system for some time now and Mount’s natural ability as a No. 8 would be an obvious fit. However, the emergence of Jude Bellingham could force a rethink. Bellingham’s form for Real Madrid is bordering on the ludicrous: only the legendary forward Alfredo Di Stefano (11) scored more goals in his first 10 games than Bellingham’s 10.
England operated with something approximating a 4-2-3-1 shape last time out in a comfortable win over Scotland with Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips providing the midfield platform for Bellingham to go an influence the game to devastating effect.
There is an increasingly strong case for Southgate building this England team around Bellingham, especially as it would justify persevering with the Phillips-Rice axis which many view as overtly conservative but Southgate himself values as a useful option given the additional defensive cover they provide.
Although England only reached the last eight in Qatar, Southgate has repeatedly stated how content he was with performances at the tournament, strongly suggesting there will be no radical overhaul in personnel.
Mount is a good traveller, a well-liked member of the squad and a credit to those in his support network. But as is the case with Sterling, who was a mainstay of the Southgate era, starting every tournament knockout game in his seven-year tenure prior to Qatar, Mount now finds his place on the plane in more doubt than at any time since his international debut in September 2019.
Saka pulling out of the squad on Monday due to a hamstring strain created an opening but Southgate, perhaps ominously for Sterling, Mount and one or two others, chose not to call up a replacement.
“We try to make the best possible decisions for the right options, the right balance, the right personalities in the group but always the team,” said Southgate. “It is always about the team. It has to be about the team. Consistency allows that. You live experiences together and going to Poland and playing Ukraine in that environment.
“Going to Hampden [Scotland] and facing that environment like we did. There is a bond that is built for the whole group and that is what comes from continuity.”
Mount used to be an essential part of that bond. He needs to prove he still is.