Football Features

“Outstanding” Rico Lewis a highlight as England underwhelm again despite first unbeaten year since 2011

By Harry Edwards

Published: 22:13, 20 November 2023

England were once again underwhelming as they ended their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign with a 1-1 draw against North Macedonia.

Gareth Southgate’s men had already qualified for Euro 2024 before this international break, so there was very little on the line for the Three Lions. They needed something to secure a spot in Pot 1 for the group stage draw, but this was very much about the performances.

And unfortunately, they weren’t performances that bring hope of success in Germany next summer. After labouring against Malta, England named a rotated XI to face North Macedonia in Skopje, with Rico Lewis making his debut.

It was meant to be a night to remember for the full-back, being the second-youngest Manchester City player to play for England at the age of 18 years and 364 days, on the eve of his 19th birthday.

But the teenager was harshly penalised for catching the face of Bojan Miovski in the box just before half time when making a challenge for the ball. After VAR consultation, the spot-kick was given and Enis Bardhi stepped up.

Of the decision, former England midfielder Joe Cole said: “I wouldn’t describe it as harsh. It’s just wrong.

“He’s in the right position, like he was all night long. He was very composed on the ball and the referee just got it wrong, and cost England. It was against the run of play.”

Jordan Pickford did manage to make the stop, becoming the first England men’s goalkeeper to save a non-shootout penalty since Joe Hart denied Ronaldinho in 2013, but Bardhi converted the rebound. It was the third time England had trailed in Euro 2024 qualifying, drawing the first with Ukraine and winning the second against Italy.

England thought they had scored the equaliser within two minutes of the second half starting as Jack Grealish finished well following Bukayo Saka’s cross, but the Man City man was offside. The changing moment came when Harry Kane came off the bench just before the hour mark.

Although the goal was officially awarded to North Macedonian defender Jani Atanasov, he was under pressure from the corner by Kane, who had come on for Ollie Watkins. It was a night of frustration for Watkins, who had just 11 touches with two shots, one off target and one being blocked.

Try as they might, the second goal wouldn’t come for England, with just two of their 16 shots hitting the target — North Macedonia had more shots on target (three) from just five attempts. The game finished level, with England going unbeaten in qualifying for a major tournament for the 16th time with a record of six wins and two draws.

The Three Lions also finished 2023 unbeaten, going a calendar year without loss (shootout or official) for the first time since 2011 — counting the Euro 2020 penalty shootout loss as a defeat, though it is officially noted as a draw. There weren’t many good feelings on the night with yet another toothless display, but special mention was reserved for debutant Lewis.

The teenager had 80 touches on the night, completed 59 of his 60 attempted passes, created one chance and made two tackles.

“[He was] outstanding,” Cole said of Lewis.

“Pep Guardiola waxes lyrical about him, he gives balance. I thought he came into the team, picking up the positions he does for Man City. I wondered whether he would be a more natural left-back tonight but Gareth gave him the licence to pop inside, pop into the sort of positions in the midfield which allowed Jack (Grealish) a lot of space.

“In his duels and his one-on-ones he was good. He was calm and composed and what he did was, he allowed England to build through the lines much better than they did the other night against Malta.

“And he’s not afraid to do this, he’ll make an inside to out run. He was effective. It was the first time I’ve really, really, watched him tonight — obviously I’ve seen him play, but where I studied him. And I think he’s an outstanding footballer.

“I think he’s given Gareth a real other option, a different option in that position.”

Joleon Lescott: “It didn’t look like his debut, I think that’s the biggest compliment you can pay him.”