A bit of perspective off the bat. This is not a great Netherlands side, it’s one in transition after failing to reach the last two major tournaments. But should that take anything away from England’s 1-0 victory in Amsterdam? Course not.
It wasn’t overly pretty but the Three Lions were effective. They tested the home side’s backline during the first half and made the breakthrough in the second through the ever-improving Jesse Lingard.
Half an hour remained after the Manchester United man had put Gareth Southgate’s side ahead but England didn’t retreat or panic, as has been so often the case in the past. They remained composed and in control and clinched victory with an authority that has often been lacking.
There are certainly promising signs in the team Southgate is building. Bigger and harder tests will come, and judging a side on friendly performances alone is never a wise decision, but there is a cohesion and togetherness that suggests England are on the right track.
Italy are next up, with the Three Lions facing the Azzurri at Wembley on Tuesday.
They are likely to give Southgate’s side a stronger tactical examination than that of Ronald Koeman’s Holland, who, especailly in the first half, struggled to deal with England’s shape.
And it’s with the Three Lions’ formation that we begin the five things we learned from England’s victory.
Southgate’s system needs finessing
England will play with a back three at the World Cup, Southgate has been steadfast in that for several months. How he builds his side around that is less clear.
In Amsterdam, perhaps because of Harry Kane’s absence due to injury, Southgate set his England side up in a 3-1-4-2 system. Jordan Henderson sat deep behind the advanced wing-backs and midfielders Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jesse Lingard. Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling were used up front.
It was a bold selection from the England boss, one that he would’ve been criticised for had the Three Lions suffered defeat. However, there were encouraging signs during the performance.
In the first half England were able to restrict the home side, whose only chance came from a corner. They also built several promising attacks, only for a poor final pass to halt their progress.
That pattern of play continued during the opening 15 minutes of the second period. The wrong decision in a key area was limiting England.
But Lingard’s goal arrived just before the hour mark and it came after a neat counter attack. Sure there was an element of fortune the way the ball fell back to the midfielder but he finished well.
What was perhaps most impressive was how England squad out the game. There was never a real threat on the visitors’ goal, which has become something of a recurring theme.
The Three Lions’ clean sheet in Holland was their fifth in a row, impressive considering they’ve faced Germany and Brazil in that run of fixtures.
Southgate has organised England well. They’re difficult to break down and don’t look vulnerable when in possession. The next step is to improve the quality in the attacking third. Nail that and the future is bright.
Pickford stakes his claim
Four goalkeepers were called up for England’s friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy; Jordan Pickford, Nick Pope, Jack Butland and Joe Hart. It was a big indication that, despite the World Cup kicking off in just 83 days, Southgate doesn’t yet know who his No.1 is.
And understandably so. Hart’s form at West Ham has been poor – and that’s being kind. Butland has made errors in recent weeks. Pickford is inexperienced and Pope more so.
“It is a really tight competition between all of those guys,” Southgate said prior to the game in Amsterdam, but he opted to select Everton stopper Pickford against the Dutch.
The 24-year-old is an excellent shot-stopper and his ability with the ball at his feet far exceeds that of the other England goalkeeping trio. However, there are question marks over his decision making and how he commands his area.
So how did he fare? In truth Pickford had little to do across the 90 minutes. There were routine saves, a few nice passes into midfield, a couple of poor clearances and one hesitant moment from a corner, but largely the England stopper wasn’t tested.
Credit must go to the England defence and midfield for restricting the home side but it did mean Southgate didn’t have a real chance to assess the young goalkeeper.
However, what Pickford had to do, he did well. And Southgate was pleased.
“He was excellent tonight, I’m really pleased with him,” the England manager told ITV. “He played with all the attributes we know he has. Yes, we know he is good with his feet but he was tidy with his goalkeeping tonight too.”
Walker comfortable in back three
His performances at Manchester City have gone somewhat under the radar –given he plays in a side that contains the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva that is hardly surprising – but Kyle Walker has been one of the Premier League’s standout defenders this term.
He has slotted into Pep Guardiola’s side seamlessly, taking on the Catalan’s instructions and implementing them with little fuss.
With City he has played as a right-back but largely in name only. In Guardiola’s system, when in possession, Walker often ends up in a central defensive midfield position and is important to maintaining dominance with the ball.
That’s improved his decision making when building attacks and is perhaps why Southgate was confident in using the former Tottenham man as one of the three centre-backs.
It was an experiment but one that paid off handsomely. Walker was composed alongside Stones and positionally he was flawless.
It would’ve been telling if the 27-year-old was constantly relying on his pace to get him out of trouble. Instead he barely had to break into a sprint all night and wasn’t forced into making a meaningful tackle.
He used the ball well too and at half time hadn’t misplaced a single one of his 35 passes. His accuracy did drop in the second period, but only a touch. He ended up competing a team high 95.1 per cent of his 61 passes.
Maguire impresses once again
The 25-year-old, who looks more like an NFL star than Premier League player, is a powerful presence yet has a good touch, a good passing range and the confidence to forward with the ball when in possession.
He gives England’s back three balance, especailly if used alongside John Stones and Walker, and with Gary Cahill often left out of the Chelsea side this term there are few better candidates for the role.
Against Koeman’s side he played 62 passes, the third highest of any England player despite coming off the bench, completed 85.5 per cent of those attempted and completed two dribbles when striding out from the back.
Where will Kane fit in?
England have a squad packed full of talented players but there’s no doubt Kane is the pick of the bunch. When fit and on form there are few better strikers in world football, he’s proven as much for Tottenham in the past four seasons.
However, Spurs are a side that are set up to get the best out of Kane. England are not. The Three Lions do not create an abundance of chances, instead they sit deep and attempt to hit sides on the counter.
It’s why Southgate picked Rashford and Sterling up front and Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lingard in midfield. The quartet are transitional players, who come alive when possession is turned over.
Kane is more measured, less frantic. His game is based on intelligent movement when his side are in possession and clinical finishing when he does receive the ball.
So where does he fit in? Of course Southgate can make tactical tweaks, and the Spurs striker’s absence was perhaps the driving force behind the 3-1-4-2 shape used against the Netherlands.
But England looked comfortable in the system for much of the game, something that can’t always be said about previous set-ups.
Kane will naturally return to the side when fit but it will be intriguing to see how he fits in.