The last six weeks has been one of the more testing spells for Gareth Southgate as manager of the England team. The organ of which he is in charge morphed into some sort of de facto public office long ago, and now seems to carry a level of responsibility around which we frame huge national talking points and debates. Southgate had to adopt the demeanour of a disappointed dad in recent press conferences, after Mason Greenwood, Phil Foden, Ben Chilwell, Jadon Sancho and Tammy Abraham all breached coronavirus protocols and were either omitted or sent home from the current squad.
Five of England’s best young players is quite a chunk of quality to have to wave goodbye to for the moment. Fortunately for Southgate there is better news from his other young players, and not just from the way Marcus Rashford continually shines the torch on this staggeringly inept government. Tonight at Wembley, an experimental England overcame a laborious first half to beat Wales 3-0. The starting eleven only had 54 caps between them, with the captain Kieran Trippier accounting for 21 of those. From the players he was leading, two performances in particular made a case for a much closer look in a competitive environment.
The evening could really not have gone any better for Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who not only made his debut but scored within 26 minutes. No striker in the top five leagues in Europe has registered as many goals as he has so far this season, and his movement and headed finish here were a sign of a player flush with confidence and eager to score goals.
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England's striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin
Image credit: Getty Images
Where England are almost overstocked in attacking players to play down the left and right of a front three, Calvert-Lewin’s emergence could give England a more than useful alternative to the virtually immovable Harry Kane through the middle. What’s as impressive as Calvert-Lewin’s recent form is the effect he has on the players around him. He can be an aerial target just as comfortably as he can take the ball into his feet; add the glut of goals to that and the presence of a variety of threats through the middle suddenly opens up a world of attacking possibilities. It has certainly done so at Everton, who currently sit top of the table in the early Premier League running.
Calvert-Lewin’s goal on Thursday was bow-wrapped by Jack Grealish. Singled out for praise by Jurgen Klopp after Aston Villa’s stunning 7-2 demolition of Liverpool on Sunday, Grealish was less explosive here but eventually exerted a confident control over proceedings. If class really is permanent, then he’s set for some career. Grealish’s natural position is as a forward-thinking left-sided player, a position where he will find serious competition from Rashford, Raheem Sterling and Sancho to name just three. He is advancing on them quickly however, and the way he picked apart one of the best teams in Europe last weekend will have caught the attention of more managers than Klopp alone.
Southgate was certainly one of those. If Euro 2021 does go ahead as planned, then he will have some difficult either/or choices to make. Bukayo Saka had something of a frustrating debut tonight but is far too good not to be in the reckoning from here on, and the players discarded from the squad will be shortly back in contention too. After a disrupted autumn for his England team, this is a more welcome headache.
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