How Arsenal prospect justified his England selection in front of Riverside Stadium crowd in Middlesbrough against Austria
The pre-match buzz, the collective songs, the sense of occasion. It’s been 15 months since the Riverside Stadium has hosted a crowd this size, and that in itself was a sight to behold.
England’s 1-0 win over Austria may have been a slow burner at times, yet it should be remembered that Gareth Southgate’s squad are still missing several players who are likely to start in their Euro 2020 opener against Croatia.
It must, though, be said that the booing from some supporters when players took a knee before kick-off left an extremely sour taste, yet the noise was drowned out by the sound of applause.
As the game went on, it was refreshing to hear the chants of ‘England, England, England!’ The 8,000 attendees certainly did their best to create an atmosphere.
The cheer which followed Bukayo Saka 56th-minute winner was also refreshing after 15 months of behind-closed-doors league fixtures here.
With ten outfield players from his 26-man squad unavailable due to their involvement in European competitions for Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea, Southgate’s options were limited.
Jesse Lingard was named in the starting XI despite not being on the standby list for this summer’s tournament, while 17-year-old Jude Bellingham was handed his first start for The Three Lions.
The best chances fell to the hosts in the first 45 minutes as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Harry Kane saw efforts saved, yet in truth it was a disjointed affair.
Eventually the breakthrough came, as the hosts won the ball back in the Austria half and opened the scoring with a sweeping move.
Harry Kane’s pass across goal was played into Jack Grealish’s path but the ball broke for Saka to convert at the back post.
Southgate set up his side in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Kieran Trippier at left-back, due to the absence of Ben Chillwell and Luke Shaw.
Grealish operated in the No 10 position, with Bukayo Saka on the left and Lingard on the right.
The centre-back pairing of Tyrone Mings and Conor Coady appeared relatively solid but weren’t overly worked in defence.
Austria were well organised during the first-half stalemate, switching from a back three in possession to a back four without the ball. Still, England’s forward line didn’t quite click, despite chances to take the lead.
That changed after the break as England’s patience paid off.
Four substitutions on the hour mark from Southgate, including the withdrawal of Kane, was expected but caused a disrupted friendly feel.
Saka wouldn’t have been in everyone’s 26-man squad but the Arsenal winger justified his selection here.
Along with Grealish, the 19-year-old was keen to receive the ball in the final third to try and create.
Saka took his fair share of fouls but was in the right place at the right time to open the scoring.
Southgate’s side will return to the Riverside on Sunday, June 6 for another friendly match against Romania.
Their first Euro 2020 game will come on Sunday, June 13 against the Croats.