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England 3-0 Republic of Ireland

Maguire (18′), Sancho (31′), Calvert-Lewin (56′ pen)

If England’s 54 years of major tournament hurt are excruciating heartache, the 35 years without victory over Ireland were a nagging headache. Enter England’s Nurofen footballer: Jack Grealish. 

With an eye on Sunday’s Nations League meeting with Belgium, Gareth Southgate played, if not a second-string team, then a significantly weakened one. But the B-listers produced an A+ performance, with goals from Harry Maguire, Jadon Sancho and Dominic Calvert-Lewin securing an assuaging 3-0 victory at Wembley. It wasn’t until the 72nd minute that Ireland managed to have their first shot. This wasn’t just comfortable, it was memory foam mattress, mug of Horlicks, hot water bottle comfortable; the best attacking performance England have produced post-lockdown. 

Southgate announced his intentions to field an experimental line-up earlier in the week. White smoke plumed from St George’s Park. The Pope had been chosen – to play in goal, that is. Gareth Southgate opted for the Burnley goalkeeper tonight ahead of Jordan Pickford, though has said of the Everton man “there is nobody who I think is challenging seriously at the moment to push him out of that position.” True, his distribution is better, but it is alarming that the manager has not yet come around to the same conclusion of almost the entire country: the rewards simply do not outweigh the risk.

It’s a shame that Pope will almost certainly appear only in this sort of match. He was almost entirely untroubled, unable to prove his worth before being replaced by debutant Dean Henderson at half-time. ITV’s coverage of the match started at 7:30 pm, just after Emmerdale. If you were out of the room when the soap’s credits rolled, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a bumper episode – the grass in England’s defensive third was so undisturbed after the first 15 minutes that you could have sent cows out to pasture there.

With Harry Kane and Jordan Henderson saved for Sunday, Harry Maguire – banned for the Belgium match after that red card last month – wore the armband tonight. A ceremonial gesture from the manager, but that one that will prove to the Manchester United defender that he is still highly valued in this team despite his cataclysmic season so far. When his header flew in after 18 minutes, therefore, the ball left a trail of symbolism in its wake. It might be melodramatic to cry redemption, but Maguire’s performances at club level have improved hugely since the Denmark fiasco.

There was something of that feeling in England’s second goal too – albeit to a lesser extent. Jadon Sancho has not enjoyed his season thus far, with the Manchester United transfer debacle perhaps weighing heavy on his shoulders. But on half an hour, he looked every bit the player United were so determined to land over the summer, jagging in from the right-hand side and beating Darren Randolph at his bottom-left.

Much of the build-up to tonight’s game focused on the man who had slipped the ball through to Sancho, Jack Grealish. He and Declan Rice spent the majority of their international youth careers with tonight’s opposition before switching their allegiances and leaving Ireland green with envy. Grealish started on the left-wing in a 3-4-3, with Rice left on the bench in favour of Harry Winks and Mason Mount.

Winks and Mount occupied deeper roles than we’ve previously seen from midfielders in this formation. They played in the dungeons so Grealish and Sancho could swagger about in the ballroom. The two were wingers only nominally, positioning themselves more narrowly ahead of the two sitting midfielers. In turn, the wing-backs were able to play in the real estate vacated by the ‘wide’ men. 

It worked. The England turbine generated chances from wide positions, moving through the thirds and beating Ireland into submission with dazzling interplay. Crucially, it was a system which you suspect was designed to not only accommodate Grealish, but to placate the fans who have been demanding his inclusion too.

Five minutes before the slick-haired, mega-calved orchestrator was replaced by Phil Foden, England had a third. Bukayo Saka – who was a nuisance all night, playing in the space that Grealish made – showed guile to draw the foul from Cyrus Christie inside the area. Dominic Calvert-Lewin absolutely slammed home the penalty for his second England goal. 

That was the last of the goals. And though he wasn’t on the scoresheet tonight, it was Grealish who was the match’s protagonist, cutting shapes, weaving threads together, making things happen. Most importantly, he made a system – a system from which he has so far been excluded – make sense. Tonight might have been the night Southgate sold three-at-the-back to a previously skeptical public, and Jack Grealish was the man that brokered the deal. We’re often warned of the danger of overhyping English talent, but Grealish looks the kind of footballer that plays so much better when he knows we’re talking about him. So please, chatter away.

England

  • 1 Pope (Henderson 45′)
  • 4 Keane
  • 5 Maguire
  • 6 Mings (Maitland-Niles 61′)
  • 2 James
  • 7 Mount (Bellingham 73′)
  • 8 Winks
  • 3 Saka
  • 10 Sancho
  • 9 Calvert-Lewin (Abraham 63′)
  • 11 Grealish (Foden 61′)

Substitutes

  • 13 Henderson
  • 14 Rice
  • 15 Abraham
  • 16 Maitland-Niles
  • 17 Bellingham
  • 18 Foden
  • 19 Kane
  • 20 Dier
  • 21 Chilwell
  • 22 Pickford
  • 23 Henderson

R. of Ireland

  • 23 Randolph
  • 12 Christie (Long 61′)
  • 4 Duffy
  • 5 Egan (O’Shea 14′)
  • 2 Doherty
  • 13 Hendrick
  • 6 Hourihane (Molumby 71’)
  • 17 Horgan (Brady 60’)
  • 7 Browne
  • 15 O’Dowda (McClean 61’)
  • 9 Idah (Curtis 71′)

Substitutes

  • 1 Travers
  • 10 Brady
  • 11 McClean
  • 14 Long
  • 16 Kelleher
  • 18 Collins
  • 19 Maguire
  • 20 O’Shea
  • 21 Curtis
  • 22 Molumby