By Ben Hart
Gareth Southgate admitted England made life difficult for themselves after a lethargic and laborious 1-0 win over Australia at Wembley.
One of ten changes from the team which swept Scotland aside last month, Ollie Watkins tapped home for his third Three Lions goal after Jack Grealish’s cross-shot on 57 minutes.
Australia pushed until the last and very nearly levelled late on as Connor Metcalfe’s far-post header cannoned off the upright.
Southgate’s side held firm under late pressure, but he knows they will have to be better when Italy travel to Wembley on Tuesday in a rerun of the gut-wrenching Euro 2020 final.
“We made a lot of changes and that made it difficult for the players,” said Southgate.
“It’s tough playing international football when you don’t have a large number of caps behind you and it’s even tougher when you put a group of lads together who haven’t played together.
“We weren’t cohesive and there were difficult moments for the team so I gave them a really tough challenge.
“Australia were very good, they were athletic and well organised. I am pleased with the win because to put the players in that position and for them to have to defend set-pieces at the end when we were short on height, we’ve had to show different qualities.”
A testing night for England started slowly, with the Socceroos alert in defence and ambitious in attack.
Watkins could not quite sort his feet out early on after away a low cross from Conor Gallagher and Australia had the run of the first half from there.
Keanu Baccus’ curling effort from distance flicked off the head of Fikayo Tomori and drew Sam Johnstone into a superb diving save, while Mitchell Duke volleyed just wide at the midway point of the half.
Watkins then hit the post after rounding goalkeeper Mat Ryan, but the visitors will feel they should have led at the break after Ryan Strain was denied a first goal for his country by a brilliant diving block by Lewis Dunk.
“We weren’t able to connect through that midfield at times, but then we were also too narrow as a back three when we were building as well, so we didn’t stretch Australia with that either,” said Southgate.
“The most joy we had was getting the ball into our wingers feet and then runs in behind from there, and at times we turned that down and tried to overcomplicate it.”
England improved after the break and delivered Watkins delivered the knockout blow just before the hour mark, sneaking in at the far post to mark his return to the England side with a goal.
The Aston Villa frontman was making his first Three Lions appearance since March 2022, underlining the depth at Southgate's disposal, and he believes the current squad is the best he has known as England boss.
“The young players who have come in now have a lot of experience as well," he said.
“You can’t fast track that, you can’t fast track the experience of playing in knockout matches.
“We have some powerful players, we were not quite so powerful tonight, it was a different profile of players for this game with some more technical players.
“We have to constantly keep looking. We have an under-21 team who are playing very well. We need that competition for places and of course there are some senior players who are injured.”
There were some late nerves when Metcalfe’s header cannoned off the upright, but England held on for a nervy win against the world’s 27th-ranked side.
But this result won’t affect England's contenders tag going into next summer’s Euros – should they qualify – and Southgate believes that is a challenge they have to embrace.
“Four or five years ago we were not quite at that level,” he said.
“Now the belief is there, there's no more experience the players need to go through with us or their clubs – we have Champions League winners, we have league title winners.
“We have to embrace that."