Yes, it was only a throwaway friendly at an empty Wembley Stadium between a second-string England and a limited Wales, but … well, maybe there is no “but”. Maybe that’s the end of the sentence. Not every football game has to mean something. Not every event has to be a learning opportunity. And as England scratched their way to a convincing if inoffensive win, the temptation was to wonder whether this lukewarm encounter had changed anything at all. Whether the fabric of the universe had been wrinkled one iota.
Still, if there’s anything more tiresome than an England friendly it’s people moaning about how tiresome England friendlies are, presumably while setting aside their entire evening to watch them. And even if you accept the essentially ephemeral, cobbled-together, Conor-Coady-as-captain feel to this contest, there was still plenty here to catch the eye. Jack Grealish was a swirling, silvery delight. Danny Ings’s overhead kick was fitting reward for a bustling night’s work. And Coady’s first England goal – capped by a celebration of pure, unbridled disbelief – was a genuinely touching moment.
Most importantly: on a night of hopeful punts and half-baked experiments, Gareth Southgate now has viable competition at centre-forward. Step forward Everton’s indomitable Dominic Calvert-Lewin, whose debut goal may have been elementary enough but whose energy, movement and influence more than justified Southgate’s decision to treat this fixture as a laboratory.
“The stuff of dreams,” Calvert-Lewin beamed afterwards, and for the Premier League’s current top scorer there is a feeling of planets aligning, of plans finally coming to fruition. Equally, of course, with Harry Kane on his own hot streak and England’s likely first-choice No 9 for as long as he wants to be, there is a temptation to wonder whether any of this is really of any consequence. Kane, Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling, with Marcus Rashford in reserve: this is Southgate’s preferred front three, and everyone knows it. Is Calvert-Lewin really destined to be any more than a handy impact substitute? Perhaps, at this point, we should backtrack a little. England may have won handily enough, but there was no getting away from the paucity of their offering in the first half-hour, or the lack of creativity from midfield.
Of course, this has been a problem area for some years now. Here, as the midfield collapsed on to the defence, the attack collapsed on to the midfield, and the wing-backs were decidedly more latter than former, it was possible to glimpse in this new team some old failings.
Yet realistically, what did we expect from England’s most inexperienced starting XI since 1980, when a B-team flew to Australia for an exhibition game only later upgraded to international status? It was the sort of team you pick when you have no spectators to refund, and yet as the game opened out in the second half England began to look much better: the various parts beginning to click, the runs and the glances and the passes finally beginning to synchronise with each other.
And though Calvert-Lewin took his leave before the hour, he had done as much as anyone to turn the tide. There was little intricate or elaborate about his goal: a simple run, a tidy header, a goal that owed as much to an absent marker as to its own inspiration. But it was at the fringes of the game that Calvert-Lewin was at his most menacing: marshalling and coordinating the press, timing his runs into the channels, pulling and pushing defenders out of their comfortable zones.
This has been the real revelation of Calvert-Lewin in 2020-21. The goals are really just the tip of the iceberg: what has really impressed is the industry and intelligence. Under the tutelage of Carlo Ancelotti, he has curbed his natural roaming instincts and sharpened himself into a pure penalty-box killer. His pace and movement forces defences to sit a little deeper. His aerial ability punishes them for it. His leap is as good as any in the Premier League. And unlike Kane, who is really more of an auxiliary second-forward these days, he still has the sharpness and burst to play on the shoulder of the last defender and attack the spaces behind.
With its marauding wing-backs and sparse, economical midfield, Southgate’s 3-4-3 formation feels like a team built for the counterattack rather than for long spells of possession. International football is a far simpler game than its club equivalent: a game of set pieces, half-chances, second balls, balls in behind. And if Calvert-Lewin can get through the season without blunting the thrilling edge to his game, he could become an indispensable tournament asset: not just an injury reserve or bench option but an alternative or even a complement to Kane.
And yes, it was only a friendly against Wales. But go back to that pointless friendly against Australia in 1980, and sure, most of that XI sank without trace. Yet among the untried and the untested were a young defender called Terry Butcher and a promising midfielder called Glenn Hoddle. The moral? Sometimes experimentation is simply about throwing a few ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks.