ENGLAND manager Gareth Southgate was finally left with the right sort of headache after Wales were comfortably dismissed in a friendly at Wembley.
It has not been the easiest of years for Southgate, the carefully-cultivated image of his squad dented by a series of off-field incidents bolted on to some decidedly colourless performances on England’s return after the coronavirus lockdown.
England needed a lift – and it came here in bundles amid the surreal atmosphere of an empty Wembley.
Southgate’s 12 months of unwanted distractions started with dropping Raheem Sterling after his altercation with Joe Gomez at St George’s Park, and later saw him withdraw Harry Maguire from a squad after the defender’s arrest in Greece.
Debutant goalscorer Calvert-Lewin in ‘good moment’ – Southgate
He also had to send Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood home for breaching Covid-19 guidelines in Iceland, and just this week excluded Tammy Abraham, Ben Chilwell and Jadon Sancho for failing to follow government rules in the build-up to the Wales match.
Southgate deserved a chance to finally talk about good things in his England camp and he was given plenty to go at here, not least a debut goal for Dominic Calvert-Lewin and a thrilling display by Jack Grealish.
And to add to Southgate’s pleasure, it was all done with an inexperienced England side, with the starting XI having just 54 caps between them.
Calvert-Lewin is on a golden streak and looking every inch the complete striker. Against Wales he capped a fine all-round display with his 10th goal of the season, powering home a header from Grealish’s cross.
Even though he is only 23, England have held high hopes for the Sheffield-born striker from as far back as 2017, when he scored the winner in the Under-20 World Cup final against Venezuela.
It has not all been plain sailing but Calvert-Lewin is now bursting with confidence and carrying serious menace every time he plays.
His attitude has never been in question but under the guidance of Everton manager Carlo Ancelotti and assistant Duncan Ferguson, he has matured out of all recognition and is now an ever-present goal threat, curing the one major flaw in his game until recent months.
The decision to rest captain Harry Kane, along with the absence of Greenwood, Abraham and Sancho, cleared the way for Calvert-Lewin to lead the England line, and he seized his chance in style.
Calvert-Lewin has muscled his way into contention, not as a rival to Kane but as a very talented alternative.
Danny Ings, too, was impressive, scoring with an overhead kick to underline England’s strength up front, which also includes options such as Marcus Rashford and the injured Sterling.
This is the sort of problem Southgate will welcome. It is an embarrassment of riches.
Grealish finally convinces
England’s other big winner was Grealish, who for a long time was seemingly struggling to convince Southgate of his worth at international level. The Villa playmaker was only called into the squad for the first time for the Nations League games against Iceland and Denmark after the withdrawals of Harry Winks and Rashford.
Grealish gave a lively 14-minute cameo in Copenhagen but here he was in his element against an admittedly under-strength Wales, creating problems everywhere for Ryan Giggs’ side as a goal creator, winning free-kicks in danger areas and showing the sort of confidence he has been displaying in the past two seasons at Aston Villa and in their flawless start to this campaign.
It remains to be seen, like Calvert-Lewin, how his immediate England future plays out, but this is the sort of performance that will surely mean his place in the squad is now assured.
Southgate will have enjoyed other aspects of the performance too, from Arsenal teenager Bukayo Saka’s lively debut to a first England goal and another highly intelligent performance from Ings, whose strike was a masterpiece of technique and athleticism.
Burnley’s Nick Pope was assured in goal, delivering a reminder that he is there should Jordan Pickford’s erratic Everton form transfer to England. For now Pickford retains Southgate’s trust because he has never let his international manager down.
Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips was assured in midfield while even Southgate’s smile was outstripped by that of Conor Coady. Has there ever been a more delighted-looking England goalscorer than the Wolverhampton Wanderers captain as he swept home Kieran Trippier’s free-kick?
It was a wonderful moment for the defender who rarely troubles the opposition goal, only having one shot in his previous 156 games for Wolves. It was a goal taken with assurance.
This was a good night for England and Southgate but now they face the sort of test that has floored them in the past when Belgium, number one in Fifa’s world rankings, come to Wembley in the Nations League.
Belgium will be a far more realistic measure of this England side, but reflections on this victory can only be positive ones and no-one will be more grateful for that than Southgate.
– Oct. 9, 2020 @ 13:15 GMT /