It was a night of milestones and celebrations for England as Wembley bore witness to three new international goalscorers — and a whole host of debutants.
With one eye on more pressing matters this weekend and beyond, Gareth Southgate opted to shuffle his pack and deployed an experimental XI against neighbours Wales in a friendly that offered domestic bragging rights, but little else.
However, tell that to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Danny Ings and Conor Coady, who all scored their first international goals to sink Ryan Giggs’ side in a 3-0 win. With the likes of Harry Kane and Tammy Abraham out of action, the alternatives attacking options certainly seized their chance to give Southgate a managerial quandary.
But, that was exactly the context of this game. With the chance to experiment, Southgate wanted to see how his second string unit would fare, and they duly responded. Jack Grealish was the standout performer with his repertoire of jinks, pirouettes and shuffles.
His impressive showing culminated in a pinpoint delivery to tee up Calvert-Lewin’s opener before drawing the decisive foul which led to Coady doubling England’s advantage. That foul drawn was just one of five, a match high, and over double the next England player.
The Aston Villa captain has long been on the periphery of first-team action at international level but proved on Thursday night that he can be the player to offer England something a bit different; something the nation has been lacking for years, and something Southgate can surely no longer ignore.
Up until his substitution, Jack Grealish was fouled more times than any other player on the pitch (5).
An impressive first start for the Three Lions. pic.twitter.com/QLBGRqDTDr
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) October 8, 2020
Reece James also translated his Chelsea form into the Three Lions jersey, adding yet another attacking right-back option to Southgate’s seemingly endless roll call in that particular position, while Bukayo Saka has continued his rapid rise to prominence and bolstered the opposite flank for England.
The night ended with Harvey Barnes receiving his first cap, a player who has truly come to the fore for Leicester in recent times and will be looking to continue his good form with so many wide options ahead of him in the pecking order, not least Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford.
But, for all the praise and eulogies reserved for England’s promising display, the collective absence of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey was sorely felt by the visitors. But as the old adage goes: you can only beat what’s in front of you.
Southgate will likely return to more familiar faces in his side’s Nations League games against Belgium this weekend and Denmark on Wednesday, but what this Wales encounter has shown is that England certainly have considerable depth and options to rotate.
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The likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku will pose a much more ominous threat than Jonny Williams (currently plying his trade in League One) and Kieffer Moore, but Southgate will take comfort in his side’s midweek mauling nonetheless.
The last time England faced off against Belgium, they suffered successive defeats in the 2018 World Cup, losing 1-0 and 2-0 in the group stage and third place play-off respectively.
But, this time round, England now have better options in key ares compared to the Russian World Cup: Grealish for Jesse Lingard, Calvert-Lewin for Danny Welbeck, Coady for Phil Jones, and arguably Mason Mount for Fabian Delph.
Add in Sancho, Phil Foden, James Maddison, Declan Rice and Mason Greenwood, and there is depth and quality across the board. They now need to show up against Belgium in a competitive sphere to truly show that progress has been made.