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On a night billed as an audition for England’s fringe players, with only five more games before Gareth Southgate names his Euro 2024 squad, Ollie Watkins and Lewis Dunk were the two who emerged with enhanced reputations from this unconvincing 1-0 friendly win over Australia.
Watkins tapped in the winning goal just before the hour to push his claim for a role as poacher; Dunk had earlier prevented a certain goal at the other end and is emerging as a much-needed new character in central defence to partner John Stones. But elsewhere there were some fluffed lines, and perhaps Gareth Southgate’s main learning was that for all the quality in their ranks, England are not quite the same without Harry Kane, Jude Bellingham and their handful of leading lights.
Levi Colwill was understandably nervous on his England debut and conceded possession too easily. Trent Alexander-Arnold had limited impact in his hybrid fullback-midifeld role. And it was a rough night for Jordan Henderson, England’s captain, who had little effect on the match and left the pitch after an hour to loud boos around Wembley. It was certainly jarring to see “Al-Ettifaq” on the teamsheet beside his name, and England fans presumably don’t buy his claim that he moved to Saudi Arabia to grow the game and change attitudes from the inside.
Eight of the starting XI had single-figure international caps and there were some bright spots among them, like Jarrod Bowen who was threatening on the right wing, and the energetic Conor Gallagher. But the entire performance was disjointed and Australia might well have won the game on another night with a little more luck in front of goal.
Referee Stephanie Frappart shows a yellow card to England’s Conor Gallagher
At the end of a week in which the FA had been criticised for its hesitant response to the Hamas attacks in Israel – having chosen not to light up Wembley’s arch with Israeli colours as it had following other incidents – the governing body would have been relieved when a minute’s silence before kick-off passed without protest. The introductory message remained somewhat vague, however, referencing “devastating events” in an “ongoing conflict” in Israel and Palestine rather than attacks or terrorism.
What followed on the pitch was an immediate flurry of intent by Australia. Watkins copped an elbow to the jaw inside a minute, Jack Grealish took a stamp on the hand and Gallagher was hacked down before replying in kind. Referee Stephanie Frappart handed out four yellow cards in the first half an hour and Southgate’s pre-match warning was proving wholly accurate: Australia really don’t like England.
They’d come for a fight but they’d come to play, too. Goalkeeper Matthew Ryan was prepared to play out to his defenders, who drew England’s press forwards and often sliced through it. England’s playmaker was James Maddison but the game’s real conductor was Australia’s Keanu Baccus, who deployed little flicks around the corner and accelerations on the half-turn to get behind England’s midfield and set Australia on numerous attacks.
Jarrod Bowen was a bright spot in a disjointed England performance
For England, Watkins took up good positions and he had their best chances of the first half. First he had a tap-in taken off his toes by some last-ditch defending, before he hit the post from a tight angle after dribbling around Ryan. It was the sort of chance you suspect he would have taken in a Villa shirt, and perhaps some Wembley nerves played a part.
England’s first-half highlight came via the defensive instincts of Dunk. The Brighton captain has increasingly showcased his ball-playing skills under attacking club managers Graham Potter and Roberto De Zerbi, but this was a hark back to the dog days of Chris Hughton, sensing danger and throwing his body on the line to prevent a certain Ryan Strain goal just before half-time.
England returned after the break with more vim in their play and it took only 12 minutes to earn their reward. Alexander-Arnold swept a high ball over a rabble inside the Australian box to Grealish lurking behind them all, and his left-footed shot across goal was heading for the post before it was tapped in by Watkins. “It wasn’t going in!” Watkins insisted, as he ran over to hug a slightly peeved Grealish.
Watkins and Grealish celebrate after breaking the deadlock
(Action Images via Reuters)
Australia finished well and should have levelled when Connor Metcalfe hit the post with a free header late on. The livewire skills of Awer Mabil caused England problems, and near the end it was Dunk again with some last-ditch defending to stop his threatening low cross.
By then, some of England’s big names had arrived – Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford, John Stones, Kieran Trippier and Kalvin Phillips had all been sent for a brief tune up before the more important matter of a Euro 2024 qualifier against Italy here on Tuesday. Southgate will hold nothing back for the Italians, and on this evidence he can ill-afford to.