Frank Lampard was watching with royalty back in London and Petr Cech was in the Sinobo Stadium stands to see Mason Mount make his first England start. But Chelsea’s head coach and technical and performance advisor will have been scratching their heads, wondering where exactly Mount had been asked to start against the Czech Republic.
Mount has excelled for Chelsea, earning his England place, on the left side of a midfield three or on the left of a forward trio. But the 20-year-old was asked to play the first half in the number 10 role in Prague.
Gareth Southgate has not suffered too many bad nights as England manager, but this was one. His change of formation meant Mount effectively had to start in a front four, just behind striker Harry Kane and, in the first half, it did not work.
It was an odd move from Southgate, who, in trying to offer England’s shaky back four more protection, effectively left Mount in no man’s land. Southgate admitted as much by changing his formation for the second period, allowing Mount to play slightly further back on the left of a more conventional midfield three. And, unsurprisingly, Chelsea’s academy graduate looked far more at home.
It seemed slightly harsh on Mount when he was replaced by his Chelsea team-mate Ross Barkley with 17 minutes remaining, but, long-term, this will have been another great experience for the youngster. Lampard was with the Duke of Cambridge Prince William in a Battersea pub as part of the Football Association’s Heads Up mental health campaign, while Cech was back in his homeland to keep a close eye on Chelsea’s England players.
Mount was the only starter of the Blues players and the early signs were encouraging as his first involvement was in the move that resulted in Raheem Sterling winning a penalty and Harry Kane opening the scoring. But, otherwise, in a first 25 minutes when he largely watched the ball float over his head or had to chase lost causes, Mount only touched the ball five times.
In his eagerness to get more involved, Mount clattered Jan Boril near the touchline and gave away a free-kick. During a break in play, Southgate took the opportunity to speak to Mount and his instructions appeared to have a positive effect as the player finished the opening period stronger.
He first embarked on a good run towards the Czech penalty area and won the ball back after being tackled, before shooting wide from a difficult chance. But Southgate made the right call at the break by switching Mount’s position and giving him a better chance to shine.
England are still trying to find the right man to provide creation and goals from midfield and Mount has certainly done that for Chelsea so far this season, scoring four times. He has taken Barkley’s starting place for club and country, with Southgate revealing that he identified Mount as a future England player at the age of 16.
But Barkley will not give up his Chelsea and England places without a fight and James Maddison, who withdrew from this squad through illness, may yet get a chance to stake his claim. Aston Villa fan Prince William will be among those who would like to see Jack Grealish get a call-up.
Lampard and Cech will have had no doubt that Mount would not have allowed a tricky first half to get the better of him and that was evident soon after the restart, when he lofted a lovely pass into the Cezh penalty area that England could not make the most of.
With his father Tony also in the crowd, this was a night Mount will never forget. It has been quite a few months in which he has also signed a new Chelsea contract, made his first-team breakthrough and played in the Champions League.
The fact he made his first England start in the same side as his boyhood friend Declan Rice will have made the occasion extra special and, despite Southgate’s blunder over his first-half position, Mount was determined to try to make the most of his Three Lions chance.
Southgate clearly appreciated the effort he put in as he gave Mount a slap on the back as he swapped places with Barkley, who stepped off the bench. There will be better nights ahead and it is hard to imagine this was not just the first of many England starts to come.