Four right-backs down to three?
Never mind the win, the number one priority for Gareth Southgate in this warm-up match was for his players to come through it unscathed. England were about two minutes away from doing just that – but then came that cruel blow to Trent Alexander-Arnold.
The Liverpool right-back had fought hard to reclaim his place in the England squad after missing out in March and could even have marked his return to the side with a goal inside four minutes at the Riverside, blasting a deflected shot just over.
That effort was an early highlight to what would become an encouraging performance, with Alexander-Arnold pushing right up high on his flank.
However, the sight of him limping down the tunnel with the help of some England physios, clutching his thigh, was a worrying one. With under two weeks until the tournament, there is little time to recover from a significant muscle problem.
Trent injury to be assessed | Southgate: Not a good sign
Southgate received plenty of criticism for naming four right-backs in his Euros squad. He may just have lost one of them already.
The England boss will be able to call up a replacement – but any plans he had for Alexander-Arnold this summer may have already been derailed.
It was a back five which took England to the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2018 but will it be a four-man backline that does the trick at the Euros?
It appears that set-up could well be Southgate’s Plan A in matches where England are likely to have the majority of the ball against deep defences in this tournament – and it got another runout against Austria, in the shape of a 4-2-3-1 formation.
The system allows Southgate to get another attacker onto the pitch – and with England’s abundance of options in the frontline, that plays to their strengths in that department. The link-up play between all four attackers Harry Kane, Jack Grealish, Jesse Lingard and Bukayo Saka in the build-up to the goal underlined the value in that.
Meanwhile, Alexander-Arnold showed adventurous full-backs – of which England also have plenty – can still pose a threat down the flanks.
But would that formation leave England exposed defensively?
Harry Maguire’s injury has opened the door for Conor Coady or Tyrone Mings to force themselves into the starting XI alongside John Stones against Croatia.
Mings just about edged it performance-wise between the pair of them against Austria but Southgate may consider a need for an extra body back there against a side as dangerous as Croatia.
Flexibility between a back four or back five will be an asset for England through their Euros campaign. But what Southgate is planning for Croatia is likely to be revealed against Romania on Sunday.
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Bellingham growing in stature
Southgate said after the game that he had hoped to give Jordan Henderson a run out but the Liverpool captain had felt some discomfort earlier in the day and the decision was taken not to risk him. Whether Henderson can now be match fit to start against Croatia a week on Sunday is surely in doubt. He hasn’t played since February 20, after all.
Fortunately – and remarkably – for England, their youngest player is looking capable of stepping in to cover for one of their eldest.
Seventeen-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder Jude Bellingham looked at home on the international stage throughout his first start for his country. Southgate said beforehand that he wasn’t being brought along just for the journey but had seriously impressed his coaching staff. And you could see why.
Playing alongside Declan Rice in central midfield, Bellingham was cool and composed in the middle of the park, able to break up Austria attacks and start England’s – just as he did for the goal.
He could even have got himself on the scoresheet but saw his first-half flick home from Lingard’s shot ruled out for a foul in the build-up. “You can’t help but marvel at a performance of a boy that age,” said Southgate.
It seems extraordinary England may end up using a 17-year-old to replace a player of Henderson’s standing against Croatia. But then Bellingham is no ordinary 17-year-old…
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Grealish pushing for a Euros start – but the case for the cavalry remains strong
It seems every time Jack Grealish pulls on an England shirt, the post-match reaction involves praise for the Aston Villa man – and the clash with Austria was no exception.
Playing the No10 role behind Kane, Grealish combined his foul-winning trickery (how important that will be in tight tournament matches) with quick bursts of speeds to dribble into space and picked neat passes through the Austria defence.
One of those passes put Kane through for a one-on-one he’d have expected to convert, while another set the England captain on his way in the build-up to Saka’s goal. There was then a second-half cross asking to be converted by Ollie Watkins or Dominic Calvert-Lewin, before he was eventually withdrawn to rest that shin injury.
“He showed some lovely touches… he’s a quality player,” purred Southgate afterwards. But the England boss has a few more quality players joining up with his squad in the coming days. And they’re set to give him a selection headache ahead of the opener with Croatia.
Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Mason Mount and Phil Foden will link up with the camp while Jadon Sancho, who was ill on Wednesday, is another who will be vying for those attacking positions in support of Kane, and lively match-winner Saka also did his chances no harm.
Getting the formula right around who to select for which test during the Euros will be a key factor to England’s chances.
England’s second and final warm-up game is against Romania on Sunday; kick-off 5pm. Their Euro 2020 campaign then gets underway against Croatia on Sunday June 13; kick-off 2pm.
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