England kicked off their Euros warm-up fixtures with a solid 1-0 victory over Austria this evening. The Three Lions dominated large swathes of the match, with Bukayo Saka putting them ahead at the start of the second half, although valiant defending was required to push back a late Austrian onslaught.
Yet the evening was far from rosy for Gareth Southgate. At times, and especially in the opening stages, his side looked lethargic and struggled to penetrate an opponent 19 places below them in the world rankings. This was excusable, given the absence of key men who played in the European finals last weekend. More concerning however was Trent Alexander-Arnold hobbling off the pitch with just minutes remaining.
After the game, Southgate said: “We’ll just have to assess it over the next 24 hours, I think [it was a] thigh injury but the medical team are still assessing it.” Alexander-Arnold’s grimaces had ITV’s punditry team already discussing who would replace him in the squad.
Southgate has flirted with both four-at-the-back and five-at-the-back formations during his England tenure. His inclusion of four right-backs in his final Euros squad, two of which – Kyle Walker and Reece James – have played in a back three this season, seemed to suggest that he’d opt for a five-at-the-back. However, England lined up in 4-2-3-1 at the Riverside, which was surprising despite the fact that they played a similar formation in their last three victories in March.
Franco Foda’s Austria opted for a 4-2-3-1, with a side containing many names familiar to viewers of Germany’s top flight. David Alaba started, alongside RB Leipzig’s Marcel Sabitzer and Eintracht Frankfurt’s Martin Hinteregger – who were among the Bundesliga’s top performers this season. Perhaps owing to Austria’s lack of depth across the pitch, many of these quality players were utilised in odd positions. Alaba, typically a defender, played on the wing. Sabitzer was also used in a more advanced position than usual.
Another point of interest is England’s centre-backs. With Manchester United captain Harry Maguire expected to miss the Croatia game with an ankle injury, it will be a straight shootout between Conor Coady and Tyrone Mings to see who will partner John Stones in the opener. Both Coady and Mings started tonight, with Stones still resting following his Champions League final appearance last Saturday.
Alexander-Arnold started the game like a man with a point to prove, given doubts that he would even make the final squad. He lofted a cross from deep that was inches away from putting Harry Kane through on goal in the first minute, then blazed a long shot over Daniel Bachmann two minutes later. Austria likewise looked keen to prove their doubters wrong following poor results in March, passing forwards well with Christoph Baumgartner sending a 25-yard-effort over in the opening stages.
After a frantic opening, the game fell into a familiar rhythm with England dominating the ball and Austria sitting back. Playing in the centre-attacking midfield role, Jack Grealish was England’s brightest spark in the first half. The most fouled player in the premier league this season continued to pick up threatening freekicks around the Austria penalty area and expertly slipped Kane through on the half-hour mark – although the effort was saved.
Meanwhile Austria, whilst limiting the amount of good England chances, struggled going forward. Their few successful moves came when striker Sasa Kalajdzic managed to flick long balls onto those around him, and Baumgartner had another decent effort denied towards the end of the half. Even still, the mood at half time reflected the aesthetic of the mostly empty Riverside stadium – drab – with both teams performing at a trot.
England started the second half with more urgency, which was hardly a tall order given their leggy first half. Jude Bellingham started to come into his own, dispossessing Austria on several occasions, which paid dividends after 56 minutes. The move started with Bellingham once again winning back possession, before Grealish and Jesse Lingard linked up in a sweeping attack which Saka expertly rounded off. The Arsenal man was grinning ear-to-ear after he lifted his first England goal into an empty net. Southgate will also be pleased that one of his more surprising selections performed so admirably.
England then made substitutions, presumably to ensure each player got an exact amount of precalculated minutes into their legs for maximum match fitness. Kane, Declan Rice, Mings and Lingard made way for James Ward-Prowse, Ollie Watkins, Ben Godfrey and Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Only the latter of those introduced has made it past Southgate’s provisional squad.
Austria, spurred on by the goal and the disorientation caused by England’s substitutes, hit the bar in the 64th minute. Sabitzer had been testing Jordan Pickford from range throughout the match, but the Everton keeper continued to answer back with a stretching fingertip save. Following a poor start to the season Southgate’s number one has performed well at Goodison Park in recent months and will be hoping to replicate his World Cup penalty shootout heroics in this year’s tournament.
As the clock wound down the competitiveness innate to every footballer’s psyche became evident, and the warm-up game opened up. Sabitzer continued to be a nuisance from range with Marco Friedl supporting down the left flank, whilst Ben White – introduced by England late on to sit in front of the back four – rocketed a long-range effort over the bar.
The most meaningful moment of the evening came at the death and wasn’t even a goal. Alexander-Arnold pulled up, clutching his left leg, after launching an innocuous clearance forwards.
After weeks of media and pundits’ debate over whether the Liverpool right-back would make the final squad, it all seemed quite meaningless after he was helped, limping, around the pitch. England’s ten men defended valiantly in the closing stages, but all attention had turned to Alexander-Arnold’s pained facial expressions.
Grealish lessened Southgate’s injury concerns after the match, despite being spotted applying ice to his shins before full time. He told ITV that “It was just a bit of stress on my shin, a different type of injury [to the one he’d suffered recently], but no I’m not concerned.”
On Alexander-Arnold, he continued: “I’m not too sure what’s happened, it didn’t look good the way he was walking around the pitch.”
England’s manager was keen to quell the concerns around Alexander-Arnold after the game, repeatedly deferring to a standard “let’s just see how he is” response. On the match, Southgate said: “I thought we started well, playing against a very good team with some good players. We needed to preserve people so we had to make changes – it became disjointed, so we had to hang on near the end.”