Comprehensive Win Shows Southgate Can’t Leave England’s B-Listers on Bench Forever

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England 3-0 Republic of Ireland

England beat the Republic of Ireland for the first time since 1985 in a dominant display at Wembley. The continuation of friendly internationals during the pandemic has been widely criticised, but this was a business-like display from an inexperienced line-up.

Speaking to EnglandFootball.org on Wednesday, Gareth Southgate said of his job as an international manager: “You don’t have long to work with the team, and I think the best teams — normally teams that win leagues, that win tournaments — have a set way of playing that everybody understands and everybody knows.” He was speaking about the 3-4-3 system that his side first adopted in Copenhagen in September. Might he deploy an extra attacking midfielder against Ireland in a return to the 4-3-3 system that served his side so well during the Euro qualifiers? No, he was implying. Trust the new formation. And sure enough it was 3-4-3 again.

Southgate was calling for England to be recognisable in their new shape. But what was unrecognisable about this display was that midfield invention and ingenuity weren’t lacking like they had been in the past couple of months. This was about as dominant a performance as Southgate has overseen in his four years at the helm. The Republic’s hopes of holding onto their 35-year unbeaten run against the hosts looked seriously under threat in the one-sided opening exchanges.

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England’s straightforward night’s work was born not of expansive, cultured football but in a way that would have been sure to please the late, great Nobby Stiles and Jack Charlton. Corners. Lots of them there were, and lots of opportunities they produced. Plucky England back to their set-piece best. Tyrone Mings headed over from one, Bukayo Saka was denied from close in by Darren Randolph from another. That one earned England yet another. And then another. And then a goal.

A replayed corner fell wide on the right for the industrious Harry Winks. Into the box towards captain Harry it went. No, not that one. Harry Kane was rested here — José Mourinho presumably punching the air from his sofa. This Harry was Harry Maguire, England skipper for the first time, who got the better of Shane Duffy to guide a clever header beyond Randolph. His recent critics answered… in an international friendly kind of way.

With Jack Grealish handed a rare start in Three Lions colours (blue), it looked an awful lot like the Aston Villa talisman was feeling Southgate’s constant pressure to add end-product to his game weighing quite heavily on him. He looked predictably hungry for the ball throughout, but if ever his cross was blocked or his touch had let him down, the head dropped. One of the nation’s most talented creators just trying a bit too hard to create.

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Good players just will not go away though. Grealish duly didn’t. He laid the ball off for Jadon Sancho, following another replayed corner, who cut inside and nutmegged Jeff Hendrick with a polished low finish that bent sublimely into the far corner. An assist in the bank for members of the ‘Jack Grealish Must Start for England’ club.

It was another England goal scored by a player whose form this term has been a little out of sorts. Some staff at Borussia Dortmund have called Sancho’s fitness levels into question in recent weeks. It can be easy to forget with the likes of Sancho just how young these players are. The man is 20. He’d just scored the best of his three England goals to date.

Mings simply wouldn’t let the role of centre-back define his game. He kept marauding forward off the ball, often providing Saka with an overlap option on the left — a throwback to his years as a left-back with Ipswich Town and non-league Chippenham Town among others. Further forward and towards the box he went in first-half stoppage time. The ball fell to him, but his low driven shot fell just wide.

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That brought proceedings to a close. Now just the 45 minutes left for Ireland to endure. At the interval, England led 2-0.

It only took a matter of moments after the restart for Stephen Kenny’s men to be panting and chasing shadows again. Jack Grealish — once one of their own — found his way into the box from the left but curled the ball just beyond the post. 46 seconds had been played.

These were the first 46 seconds of senior international football for Dean Henderson — playing second fiddle to David de Gea at Manchester United and playing second fiddle to England’s second fiddle Nick Pope here tonight. The young goalkeeper has found chances at a premium this season, but he will return to Trafford Training Centre next week a full England international.

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The flood of substitutions that are part and parcel of an international friendly would arrive in time, but an England penalty put the game to bed before fresh faces graced the Wembley pitch. 19-year-old Saka won it; the first quandary was who would take it. There was no Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford (who dropped out of the squad through injury alongside Conor Coady after the match) or Kane to turn to. Up stepped Dominic Calvert-Lewin, caressing the ball into the top corner in beautiful style. The Premier League top scorer is becoming more and more clinical in front of goal. This was his second for England. There are sure to be many more.

For Calvert-Lewin, that — and more of his trademark aerial superiority — was an easy evening’s work done. Phil Foden, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Tammy Abraham came on. The depth and youth in Southgate’s squad these days offers licence for optimism. The youth especially was about to reach new levels entirely.

As one of Southgate’s virtual ever-presents Mason Mount made way, Sancho’s Dortmund teammate Jude Bellingham replaced him. A product of Birmingham City’s academy, Bellingham is 17. Behind Theo Walcott and Wayne Rooney, he became England’s third-youngest player of all time. Into a midfield two he slotted: big responsibilities, but a player here on merit, insists the England boss.

Bellingham — for whom attention will turn to his driving theory test after international duty — helped the England machine just tick over. It was cruise control; it always had been in truth. No more goals, but no lack of chances, of effort, and of class in possession.

The Nations League resumes with a trip to Leuven to face the world’s number one side Belgium next. One would assume there will be wholesale changes for that match, but England’s B-listers — as many of them seem to be at present — are banging loudly on the door.

Southgate told EnglandFootball.org this week that “form and progress can change who our best players are.” They certainly can. This is what they call a good headache.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent in Serbia, Scotland reached the Euros to set up a group-stage tie with England at Wembley. A slightly less metaphorical headache beckons for many the morning after that one.

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