There is unlikely to be any diversion from the tried and trusted when England return to Wembley to face Italy in qualifying for Euro 2024 on Tuesday. If Gareth Southgate was hoping to come away from this win over Australia with selection dilemmas, a disjointed display will surely only have left him even more certain about who will be in his starting XI in Germany next summer.
Not that there were no positives for Southgate to draw from a night including a clean sheet for Sam Johnstone, Ollie Watkins taking his chance up front and Lewis Dunk making a vital goal-line clearance when it was 0-0 and Australia were on top.
Elsewhere, though, concerns lingered. Fikayo Tomori was shaky in central defence and Jarrod Bowen struggled to show he can challenge the absent Bukayo Saka on the right wing. Creativity was sparse. Jack Grealish lacked consistency despite making Watkins’ winner and, of the many questions to emerge, perhaps the most intriguing is how Southgate handles the public disapproval that greeted Jordan Henderson after his substitution in the second half.
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The booing for Henderson was surely not only because of England’s confusion in a midfield that had Conor Gallagher pushing high and Trent Alexander-Arnold drifting inside to play as a quarterback. It was surely a reaction to Henderson moving to Saudi Arabia and betraying the LGBTQ+ cause. The PR battle is lost and, while Southgate has stood by the former Liverpool captain, seeing him look so far off the pace against Australia made it hard not to conclude that England have less complicated options.
The issue is that Henderson is in a league short of intensity. It surely impacts a player’s condition. At 33, Henderson’s value to England is diminishing and Southgate must think carefully about his midfield. Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham are certainties to start but who fills the third slot? Not Henderson on this evidence. Ultimately Southgate probably needs Kalvin Phillips to leave Manchester City in January and find regular football. His ideal is not Alexander-Arnold as an auxiliary midfielder or James Maddison playing as a No 8; it is Rice and Phillips shielding the defence and releasing Bellingham.
It was a relief for the focus to switch to assessments of players. After the fury caused by the FA’s refusal to light the Wembley arch in the colours of the Israeli flag or the Jewish prayer shawl, it was good to hear the period of silence in memory of the victims of the conflict in the Middle East pass without any disruption.
This was a tough test for England. Australia were motivated, Keanu Baccus and Jackson Irvine crunching into challenges in midfield, and were hunting for complacency. When they threatened in the 22nd minute, Sam Johnstone saving well after Baccus’s shot took a deflection off Tomori, it was clear that England had to sharpen up.
Their passing was loose. Bowen, handed his first cap since June 2022, wasted a chance to play Jack Grealish in on the left. Maddison sent a shot out for a throw. Australia had hope and they delivered another warning when Tomori lost track of Mitchell Duke, only for the striker to volley wide.
Australia made their physicality count. Kye Rowles, the left-back, shot over after a corner fell to him and England laboured. There were holes in midfield, where Gallagher was lacking in discipline and Henderson in control. Further forward Maddison could not get the ball after finally being put in the middle, though he would underline his threat on one occasion, releasing Watkins to round Maty Ryan and hit the woodwork from a tight angle.
Ollie Watkins finishes from close range. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA
Yet England were erratic. Australia should have led when Martin Boyle released Ryan Strain after turning past Levi Colwill, who will look to improve after making his debut at left-back. Strain’s shot beat Johnstone but Dunk cleared it.
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In fairness England experimented. The shape in possession was interesting. Colwill moved into a back three, Alexander-Arnold was close to Henderson, and Gallagher pushed close to Bowen. It was not easy to pull off. England often looked congested.
They ended up going direct. After 57 minutes Australia lost concentration when Alexander-Arnold lifted in a deep cross. Grealish had time to crack a low shot towards the far post and look distinctly unamused when Watkins slid in to score from yards out.
Was Grealish’s shot going in? Was this a Pure Nugent? Watkins did not look contrite. Strikers need goals and Watkins needs to boost his numbers if he is to push past Callum Wilson, Ivan Toney and Eddie Nketiah in the battle to be Harry Kane’s understudy.
Johnstone would also do himself no harm in goal, saving again from Goodwin. England could make changes. Nketiah came on for his debut and Australia went close again, Connor Metcalfe heading against a post. England’s second string held on.