The first jolt of the evening was unwanted and Tyrone Mings was a lucky man to escape a red card. Only he knew what he was thinking about inside nine minutes when he lashed out off-the-ball at the Austria striker, Sasa Kalajdzic, flooring his opponent inside the England penalty area. The offence went unnoticed, with VAR having the night off.
The second, however, was rather more memorable, a first England goal for Bukayo Saka early in the second-half to emboss a driving performance up the wing and fire England to victory as the countdown to Euro 2020 entered its final phase, allthough there was an additional headache for Gareth Southgate when Trent Alexander-Arnold had to be helped off with what looked like a thigh injury.
Southgate was without 11 key players – the contingents from Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea after their involvement in the Europa League and Champions League finals; a bizarre state of affairs given that England open the finals against Croatia at Wembley on Sunday week.
The manager included only three certain starters – Jordan Pickford, Declan Rice and Harry Kane – and watched his team survive a nervy finale when the Austria substitute, Michael Gregoritsch, missed a gilt-edged header and Ben White, on for his debut, made an even later clearance off the line. It was a performance that lacked cohesion for long spells and threatened to implode at the end, with Alexander-Arnold’s injury coming just three minutes before full-time.
It was simply impossible to ignore the absentees, the fact that Southgate could only draw upon 14 members of his squad for the finals. A fifteenth, Jadon Sancho, had been listed on the teamsheet but he was never going to play because of illness. Jesse Lingard was the greatest curiosity, cut by Southgate for the tournament on Tuesday; then thrust into the starting lineup to win his 28th cap.
As Southgate said, his stand-by players had to stay match ready in case of any injuries and Lingard’s professionalism in the camp has been excellent. When it was all said and done, this was still an opportunity to represent England.
The onus was on England to get onto the front foot and Southgate’s 4-2-3-1 formation, a slight variation on his more commonly used 4-3-3, was designed to get Jack Grealish on the ball in dangerous central areas.
Behind him, there was a full debut for Jude Bellingham, at just 17, and it was easy to see why there is such a buzz around him, why Southgate puffed out his cheeks on Tuesday and said: “Wow.” Bellingham’s composure on the ball is astonishing; ditto his positional discipline.
The game might have been shaped differently early on had the referee, Lawrence Visser, noticed Mings delivering an off-the-ball forearm smash to Kalajdzic’s face. It came inside the penalty area as Austria attacked up the left and was a moment of recklessness from the centre-half that cannot happen in the finals. Perhaps Mings knew that there was no VAR and was happy to take his chances.
Kane’s link-up play was a feature of the first half – the way that he dropped deep and sometimes wide to spark moves; his passing was excellent, although he was arguably needed in front of goal – while Grealish flitted dangerously, daring his opponents to dive in on him and winning free-kicks.
England’s best moment before the interval followed Saka slipping a pass through Xaver Schlager’s legs for Grealish on 29 minutes and him then playing in Kane.
The captain looked offside, which was not given, and, from a tight angle, he watched Daniel Bachmann get out to block his shot.
Earlier, Kane had played in Alexander-Arnold, who started at right-back, for him to lash at the roof of the net but Bachmann tipped over. Bellingham wasted a free header from a corner, Lingard had the ball in the net but the whistle had gone for a foul by Mings on Martin Hinteregger and Saka volleyed high. There was not much from Austria save for a run by Christoph Baumgartner, which was eventually snuffed out by Mings.
There was a welcome return of 8,000 fans, who made themselves heard, although rather less welcome was the booing from some of them when the players took a pre-match knee.
England needed to do more in the second half to prise apart obdurate opponents and they got their break when Bellingham won possession and Grealish got Kane away up the inside left channel. Kane’s pass back inside was loaded with fizz for Saka, who teased it through for Grealish, who had continued his run into the box. Marcel Sabitzer’s last ditch tackle succeeded only in diverting the ball out to Saka, who finished from a tight angle.
Southgate introduced three more of his stand-by players, including Ben Godfrey for a debut that almost turned sour with virtually his first touch. Godfrey had his head in his hands after playing a loose backpass towards his own goal and was mightily relieved when Pickford scrambled back to clear. England were also fortunate when Pickford got his fingertips to a Sabitzer shot on 64 minutes to brush the ball against the crossbar.