Gareth Southgate’s first words at last week’s news conference to unveil England’s initial 33-man squad came across like a thought that has been circling his mind for some time: “Our situation is more complicated than any other country.”
Wednesday’s 1-0 win over Austria here at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium encapsulates why. That is not to say that there weren’t positives.
Southgate also claimed before this game that in picking one of the youngest squads at Euro 2020, they were largely free of the “baggage” of past tournament failures. Bukayo Saka, 19, and Jude Bellingham, 17, the two youngest of all, validated that theory albeit in the phony war these warm-up games represent.
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“They were both excellent,” said Southgate. “They were as they’ve been since they walked through the door really with us, both in training and the matches. They’ve played with confidence, they’ve played with freedom, with maturity.
“I thought Bukayo right from the start linked the game well; he received well on the line, inside. He’s got a lovely ability to receive in the traffic in the middle of the field. He’s like a slippery eel getting away from those challenges.
“And Jude, you can’t help but marvel at the performance of a boy that age, really. It is a bit disrespectful to call him a boy because he’s 17 but not a boy, is he? He plays like a man.”
Bellingham continues to look remarkably composed for a 17-year-old earning his third cap — the youngest England player to start a game since Wayne Rooney did so in September 2003 vs. Liechtenstein — quietly clever on the ball and operating with an assurance England have perennially lacked in central midfield at previous tournaments. Meanwhile, Saka capped a week in which he made the final cut and was nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year award by scoring his first England goal to settle this contest.
There were four minutes or so between Saka being on the receiving end of a rough tackle by Stefan Lainer — one of several zealous challenges Austria made throughout the game — and the Arsenal winger showing the perseverance to open the scoring, a further indication of his unswerving attitude.
A slick counter-attack saw Harry Kane feed Jack Grealish, and just as the Aston Villa playmaker shaped to shoot, he was tackled by Marcel Sabitzer. However, Saka stayed alive and reacted first, turning the loose ball home from a tight angle with Austria goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann left stranded.
Jude Bellingham, 17, and Bukayo Saka, 19, continue to state their case for increased roles at Euro 2020. Photo by Laurence Griffiths – The FA/The FA via Getty Images
Grealish ended the night with an ice pack on his right leg. Although this is merely part of his ongoing recovery from a shin problem — Southgate admitted he did not want to “over-play him” as he rediscovers his sharpness — it remains one of a plethora of considerations Southgate must factor in having already admitted Grealish cannot train fully at present. Tyrone Mings was also pictured with an ice packc, but the far greater concern was for Trent Alexander-Arnold, who appeared to suffer a thigh injury when innocuously clearing the ball upfield in the 90th minute.
He cut a forlorn figure as he hobbled around the pitch, and with England’s opening match just 11 days away, Alexander-Arnold is surely a major doubt for the finals. The Liverpool defender joins a list of concerns with Manchester United centre-back Harry Maguire already a doubt to face Croatia on June 13 due to an ankle problem and Jordan Henderson yet to play any competitive football since February following groin surgery.
Henderson was in fact an unused substitute here after undergoing a precautionary scan on the morning of the game as he “wasn’t so happy with how he felt,” according to Southgate, who added he will return to training tomorrow.
England ended up finishing the game with 10 men, as Alexander-Arnold limped off and Southgate chose not to risk Henderson or Leeds midfielder Kalvin Phillips, while Jadon Sancho was not used because of illness.
Southgate’s problems are of course not of his own making. United, Chelsea and Manchester City all reaching European finals have led to the group joining up on a staggered basis.
The 50-year-old was sceptical about picking 26 players in the first place when UEFA increased the squad size from 23 because of the pandemic, instead saying he would prefer a tight-knit group mindful of the difficulty in entertaining more players who can’t start each game than those who can. Yet the issues are mounting up, including a troubling number of the 6,500 person crowd booing the players as they took a knee in support of Black Lives Matter. If Southgate didn’t already have enough to worry about, there was also an example of the time-honoured issue of tournament ill-discipline potentially rearing itself again as Mings was lucky to escape with a forearm smash on Marco Friedl inside the opening 10 minutes.
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Contrast this with the serene buildup to the 2018 World Cup, where England reached the semifinals. In the corresponding fixture, the first warm-up game held on the same date that year, June 2, Southgate named nine of the XI that would go on to start the opening group match of the finals against Tunisia.
Southgate’s final words looking forward to Sunday’s final warm-up game against Romania were equally telling, the sense of having to fulfill a fixture rather than viewing it as a meaningful pursuit. To this point, the seven players originally cut from the group will stay on in case one or more injury problems worsen to prompt a call-up.
“All the players are going to stay with us through to Sunday’s game anyway,” he said. “We’ll make an assessment on the whole squad once we’ve got through that game.
“I’m very conscious we’ve got another 90 minutes to get through and that alone is a bit of a challenge at the moment.”
Not quite the sentiment of a manager enjoying the smoothest of preparations.