Friendlies, you will have been told, are all about the performance. This one wasn’t. This was about the win. Getting in front, and holding that lead. Ending a run of defeats that would have been the worst in the history of the national team, if Switzerland had come out on top here.
Gareth Southgate made good on his promise to involve many of those that had not featured against Spain on Saturday – that, after all, is what non-competitive fixtures are for: experimentation, experience. Yet once one of his first-choice starters, Marcus Rashford, had got England’s noses in front after 54 minutes, the players Southgate introduced to see out the 30 minutes had a distinctly A-team feel.
On came Harry Kane for Danny Welbeck, John Stones for James Tarkowski, Jesse Lingard for Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jordan Henderson for Fabian Delph, Kieran Trippier for Trent Alexander-Arnold. The Leicester locals hoping to see their boys promoted from the Under 21s, Ben Chilwell and Demerai Gray, were kept waiting. Chilwell got on, but not until the 79th minute. This wasn’t about sentimentality. England had lost three games straight, their worst run in 30 years and only equalled six times in their history, and no manager wants that record around his neck – certainly not when the next two games are Croatia and Spain away.
MATCH FACTS AND STATS
England: Butland, Walker, Tarkowski, Maguire, Dier, Alexander-Arnold, Loftus-Cheek, Delph, Rose, Rashford, Welbeck.
Subs: Pickford, Trippier, Chilwell, Stones, Gomez, Henderson, Lingard, Kane, Gray, McCarthy, Bettinelli.
Switzerland: Sommer, Schar, Djourou, Akanji, Lichtsteiner, Zakaria, Xhaka, Freuler, Rodriguez, Shaqiri, Gavranovic.
Subs: Mvogo, Moubandje, Klose, Mbabu, Embolo, Seferovic, Edimilson Fernandes, Zuber, Sow, Ajeti, Mehmedi, Kobel.
Referee: Clement Turpin (France)
The country, the press box, the dressing-room, all are on Southgate’ side – but he still needs an end product. Players, in particular, require evidence that sunlit uplands are ahead. They had that at the World Cup, with progress to the semi-finals – but the campaign ended on two defeats, and another to Spain at the weekend. Friendly or not, they needed to show that Southgate’s methods could win football matches against good opposition.
Switzerland put six past Iceland in their last competitive match. They are not world-beaters – but they are not mugs either.
So Rashford’s goal was a welcome one. A wild corner from Danny Rose had been overhit in a way that made one pine for the precision of Trippier, but was picked up by Kyle Walker deep on the right. He had time to as good as tee the ball up and strike it to the far post, where Rashford had lost his man. He met the ball on the volley from close range, leaving goalkeeper Yann Sommer no chance.
It was his second goal of this international break and one that confirms he is that rare thing: a player who looks better for England than his club. Stones emerged with credit, too, for a John Terry-like block that prevented a certain Swiss equaliser. Who knows what Southgate said before sending him on, but it certainly didn’t look like: take it easy, we’re not too bothered about this one.
All the first half proved is that, regardless of performance, Southgate’s instincts on players is most usually right. Jordan Pickford is much better than Jack Butland in goal; Tarkowski is behind at least four centre halves at international level, and one of those is a full back; Henderson is a more reliable pivot than Eric Dier; Loftus-Cheek needs games if he is to keep pace with the elite.