Saka Nets Winner on Night Overshadowed by Alexander-Arnold Injury

Getty Images/Lindsey Parnaby

England 1-0 Austria

  • Trent Alexander-Arnold hobbled off late on as England saw off Austria by a single goal in Middlesborough
  • The game’s only goal came from Bukayo Saka, who slotted into an open net midway through the second-half

There was no Raheem Sterling, no Phil Foden, no Marcus Rashford, no Mason Mount, no Kyle Walker and no John Stones. Absent too were Ben Chilwell, Harry Maguire, Reece James, Dean Henderson, Jordan Henderson, Jadon Sancho, Kalvin Phillips and Luke Shaw. But this England have depth — and luck, it seems. Despite lining up in a 4-3-3 system, England struggled to control the match. Yet Bukayo Saka made his chance count by breaking his duck with what proved to be the only goal of a stop-start game. He told EnglandFootball.org that scoring was an “amazing feeling that I hope I can feel many more times.”

An energetic start was always guaranteed from Gareth Southgate’s England, irrespective of the team-sheet. Within five minutes, the full-backs were overlapping and Grealish was being felled as he flirted with the Austrian defence in front of the returning England supporters. Nature was healing at just the right time. Trent Alexander-Arnold blasted just over with the first chance of the game. What irony a goal would have brought. Christoph Baumgartner and Bukayo Saka missed sighters for either team as a fast-paced match gradually settled.

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England were helped by the odd moment of class from Harry Kane and by Grealish’s unpredictable darts into space. They were unable to pin Austria down though, and looked unlikely to ever break down what was a stern and adept defence. With the second half lulling along via fouls committed here and yellows dished out there, the Three Lions’ one real moment of star quality brought the goal they lacked to this point.

“This is a moment I dreamed of as a kid”

Bukayo Saka on scoring his first England goal

Grealish nicked the ball well in midfield and distributed the ball wide to Kane. The skipper played a low searching ball which reached the feet of Jesse Lingard, unlucky to be axed from Southgate’s Euros squad at the last minute but in from the start here in place of the resting European finalists. Lingard tucked the ball back into Grealish. Before Grealish could greet the ball with a shot of his own, Marcel Sabitzer — the Austrians’ best player on the night — slid in devotedly. His tackle only helped the ball onto Arsenal’s Saka, though, bolting down the left flank. With the goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann of Watford nowhere to be seen, Saka converted from a tight angle to complete a goal that looked as much stolen from a video game as anything else.

Southgate kept the fans at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium on their toes with a raft of substitutions. Kane, Grealish and Rice were saved for bigger tests ahead. On came Ben White and Ben Godfrey for their England debuts — cut from the 33 like Lingard but on the field of play for their own special pieces of history.

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With fewer leaders on the pitch, England understandably sat back and invited pressure from the visitors. Franco Foda’s side came into the game perhaps more than they would have expected to, driving at England and then driving once more. The closest they came to scoring all night actually came from one of Southgate’s own. Ben Godfrey nearly scored a fluke own-goal when his back-pass to Everton teammate Jordan Pickford almost evaded the goalkeeper. A repeat of the 2006 Gary Neville and Paul Robinson own-goal would certainly not have been welcome this close to facing Croatia in a competitive fixture.

Sabitzer continued to trouble a rather disjointed England, but Pickford was twice alert and acrobatic to ensure the RB Leipzig man didn’t add to his eight international goals. The killer for England came not in the form of an Austrian equaliser but in the form of an injury. There could scarcely have been a more unpopular sight for the supporters than that of Trent Alexander-Arnold hobbling off the pitch and being helped down the tunnel looking visibly upset. It was only on Tuesday that Southgate was a little sharp when defending his selection of four right-backs. England fans will hope it is only an impact injury and that Alexander-Arnold can remain in the squad. His quality going forward could be such an asset over the next month.

A Ben White block on the line and two missed headers from Michael Gregoritsch allowed England to escape from the fixture with their clean-sheet intact, but it wasn’t a performance to excite the nation, even accounting for the missing dozen and the fact Southgate’s team finished the match with only nine on the field due to Alexander-Arnold’s late injury and a Godfrey knock late on too.

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Saka’s goal was the one real positive on the night. A goal from a 19-year-old would have been noteworthy in most England sides. In the current version, it’s just another day at the office. He told EnglandFootball.org how pleased he was to net his first for the national team after the match. “I’m really happy,” he said. “This is a moment I dreamed of as a kid, to score my first goal for my country. I’ve come close to it in previous camps, but I’m just happy to get the first one, and it’s an amazing feeling that I hope I can feel many more times.”

On England’s overall performance, Saka explained that there is lots of work still to be done in the leadup to the tournament opener. “There were moments when we weren’t at our best and we were scrappy. But there were also moments when we were on top and playing free-flowing football and had some chances that we couldn’t put away.”

Putting away chances is the essence of tournament football. England were ruthlessly efficient in Russia despite not creating much, and reached the semi-finals as a result. Saka was cool-headed when his moment in the spotlight came, but England must shore up in all areas of the pitch if they’re to challenge this summer. Integrating half of the squad into the camp this week will go a long way to doing that.

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