“Alright Rui?” I smile as I run up alongside my England assistant in St George’s car park. “I caught a bit of United’s 4-0 win against Benfica the other-”
“I have a plan, Mr Franjo.” Growls Rui Faria.
“A plan?” I frown. “A plan for what?”
“A plan to take down Josep Guardiola once and for all.” He spits on the floor. “We cannot tolerate the ins-”
“We aren’t playing Spain this break, Rui.” My brow furrows further still. “How do you intend to take him down if we aren’t playing his side?”
“I know a man.” His voice lowers to a whisper and he turns to regard me seriously. “A problem solver of sorts.” I stare back at him silently. “A problem solver”, he continues, “in the sense that if you give him a name of a problem, for example Josep Guardiola…” He pauses to spit on the car park floor once again. “…He will solve the problem for you.” I continue to stare back at him silently. “By which I mean he and his associates will go around to-”
“I get it.” I cut him off, worried that by hearing more of this madness I’ll be somehow implicated in a serious crime by the end of the international break. “No, Rui, that’s fine. Let’s just… Focus on the matter at hand, shall we? Mexico and Austria for now, then next month we’ll get Pep – Stop spitting, you dirty bastard – We’ll get Pep back for beating us. Through our football. I can’t emphasise that enough.” Rui rolls his eyes.
“Suit yourself.” He mutters.
“Jesus, you’re really Mourinho’s man through and through, aren’t you.”
Having sufficiently cooled off since my first match at Wembley and the heartbreaking 4th Spanish goal that beat us, I’m pretty pleased with what I’ve seen so far from England. If nothing else, we’re really excellent going forwards, but I’m hesitant to count on attacking ability alone after how that attitude fared for France. We do need to be more solid at the back, particularly against the top sides, but as much as I absolutely don’t want to throw young centre back Juddy Lokando under the bus, he made a couple of glaring individual errors in the Spain match that lead to goals. I do wonder how much better we’ll be defensively after we’ve played a few matches with Project: Pride and have gotten our mistakes out of the way. Here’s the latest squad for our 2 home games against Mexico and Austria.
Jack Butland (Arsenal), Jordan Pickford (Sunderland AFC), Will Mannion (Norwich City)
John Stones (Liverpool), Mason Holgate (Southampton), Juddy Lokando (Manchester City), Michael Keane (Real Madrid), Harry Winks (West Bromwich Albion), Trent Alexander-Arnold (Real Sociedad on loan from Liverpool), Luke Shaw (Manchester United), Charlie Taylor (Swansea City)
Eric Dier, Dele Alli (Both Tottenham hotspur), Reece Oxford (Watford), Jordan O’Halloran (Stoke City), Ed Salmon (AFC Bournemouth), Stuart Coleman (Manchester United), Phil Jones (AC Milan), Adam Bell (Leicester City)
Oliver Webb (Chelsea), Marcus Rashford (Real Madrid), Joe Bell (Stoke City), Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur)
I want to walk a bit of a tightrope here, as I’m still trying to gage which players can cut it for England and which can’t, while simultaneously trying to build a team atmosphere. I do want to give more players a look and our Mexico friendly is a perfect opportunity to experiment, but I don’t want to make wholesale changes. In the end there are 3 differences in personnel in my second squad: Burnley’s Taylor Moore misses out after making his debut against Austria last time as he looked shaky in his first England appearance, understandably so. I’m not ruling him out of future squads though as he’s clearly a top quality defender. He’s even on my shortlist for Paris Saint-Germain as a possibility in case I’m forced to buy a centre back in January, as not only is he a good player but as a Lens youth footballer he’d also count towards our homegrown quota. For now though, Southampton’s Mason Holgate comes into the squad in his place.
All of that being said however, I’m going to be dishing out quite a few rare international starts today as I continue to get to know my players. Norwich goalkeeper Will Mannion makes his debut in net and although he’s a championship player, the England no.1 shirt could be up for grabs after Jack Butland’s abhorrent display against Spain so I want him to impress me. Former Everton duo Mason Holgate and Michael Keane start in defence with Reece Oxford making his full debut just ahead of them in the holding man role, while Trent Alexander-Arnold and Charlie Taylor take the wingback spots. Another player making his first England start is Bournemouth’s Ed Salmon, who’ll doubtless have to move quickly across the pitch to avoid the daggers his former teammate Lewis Cook will be staring at him through his TV and Ed’s companion in midfield will be Phil Jones, whose defensive skillset and experience should compliment him quite nicely. Abel’s thrown straight in at the deep end in the number 10 role and plays behind a striking partnership of Marcus Rashford and captain Harry Kane. Although our front 2 are very experienced, I haven’t seen them very much in an England shirt as of yet and I’m hoping they’ll be able impress me, especially as they’re lining up against PSG centre back Ricardo Ibarra.
Our first good move of the day is 20 minutes in and ends with Abel teeing up Marcus Rashford, who hits a looping volley towards the top corner but is denied at full stretch by Augusto Batalla, who tips the ball onto the bar. A few minutes later Rashford turns creator, holding the ball up 30 yards out and then playing a really clever through ball for Adam Bell, who surges into the right hand side of the box from a central position. The debutant has a pop from a tight angle and beats Batalla, but his effort hits the near post and rolls across the line, leaving Harry Kane with an almost insultingly easy finish to put us into the lead.
We’re pegged back in the 27th minute when Mexico pose their first real threat of the match and win a corner. Pineda takes it, swinging a cross into the 6 yard box and Zaraté gets above Reece Oxford to send a thumping header into the far corner. Unfortunately Abel takes a knock just before half time but I leave him on as he seems willing and… Erm… Able.
It’s worth noting that I’ve been very impressed by Ed Salmon so far, who’s not been as all-action as I expected but has been getting into excellent positions to receive the ball and pulling the strings well from the edge of the final third. 10 minutes after the break, he lays the ball to Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right wing and the Sociedad man swings a superb cross into the “corridor of uncertainty” behind the Mexican defence. Marcus Rashford pops up in between the two centre backs to volley us back into the lead from 6 yards.
A couple of minutes later, TAA gets away down the right again and sends another good cross in, this time right onto the head of Harry Kane, who turns it against the Mexican bar. A quick counter attack later, Mexico are threatening to cancel out our goal even quicker than they did the first time and a Figueroa cross pinballs through the box and reaches Alvarado on the far side. Alvarado shoots towards the near post but Mannion does well to tip it behind for a corner. The pressure stays on us and Pineda again delivers well from the corner. He swings it in, Calero beats Phil Jones at the near post to flick the ball on and Jordan Silva loses his marker Reece Oxford to poke in the equaliser. Oh dear, Reece.
I make a few changes on the hour, with Stones, O’Halloran, Coleman and Alli replacing Holgate, Salmon, Jones and Abel, but they fail to make an immediate impact. It takes us to find the 92nd minute to find the winner, which I’d like to say was a strategic decision so that the Mexicans wouldn’t have any time to instantly hit back for the third pissing time, but I can’t take any credit. Alli can though, as he plays a lovely ball straight through the defence and into the box, where Rashford latches on and leathers a shot in off the underside of the crossbar.
It’s a difficult one, this. Again I’m in the situation where I’m not exactly happy about conceding 2 goals, but again the source of the goals was a couple of individual errors from one player, namely Oxford. I should stress as well that other than the 2 mistakes, Reece had a pretty decent game. Maybe we just need to work more on corners. Anyway, there were definite positives to take from this one: Real Madrid striker Marcus Rashford is fantastic, although that’s not exactly a revelation, Abel played very well and set up a goal on his debut, inadvertent as it may have been and Trent Alexander-Arnold really, really impressed me, particularly with those 2 crosses in the second half. After he left me quite sceptical of his ability in the Spain match, that’s great news.
Some pretty disappointing news out of the England camp however is that the Under 21s have been knocked out of their European Championship Qualifying Group and that Aidy Boothroyd has been sacked as a result. To be fair to them, they lost out in their group to Portugal, whose senior side just won the competition months ago, so there’s clearly a really high level of quality running throughout the Portuguese set-up, but it’s still sad to see Aidy go after he’s spent 10 years working his way through the English youth levels.
The final match of the senior team’s international break is against Austria, who we thumped 6-2 at their place in my first match as England manager and who are now making the return journey to Wembley. They’ve just lost to Spain too, so Pep’s side are at the top of Division A Group 3 with maximum points and we really need another win here if we’re to have any hope of keeping up.
If there’s one man who’s impressed me more than anyone else since I accepted the FA’s offer… In fact, he actually started impressing me a few months earlier in the first match of Euro 24, it’s Chelsea’s Ollie Webb. He never stops running, never gives up and is a team player in the truest sense of the word. Coming into this match he’d scored 2 goals and set up another 4 in the 2 appearances he’d made for me and it takes him just 69 seconds here to make it 3 goals in 3. Stood 20 yards out, he runs up and curls a free kick over the Austrian defensive wall and into the top corner of the net. This lad can do fucking everything. When I joined PSG I promised myself that I wouldn’t splash the cash for the sake of it and would only sign a player if a position needed strengthening. I’m happy with my striking options back in Paris, but if Webb keeps playing like this he’s going to seriously test my resolve.
Early goals often promise an oncoming glut that never materialises and indeed the next half hour is quite disappointingly quiet. 10 minutes from the break however we do get another good chance when Jordan O’Halloran plays a lovely backheel pass to Winks on the right wing. Winks drills a low cross in for Webb, whose first shot is saved by Stankovic’s fingertips, but whose second is drilled into the back of the net. I force myself to think of all the goals that Moise Kean and Manuel Bueno have scored so far this season.
Half time comes and goes and we’re soon threatening again. 5 minutes into the second half, O’Halloran lays the ball off for Dele Alli, who drives a first time shot low into the far corner from the edge of the Austrian box. Austria do not have any kind of response as of yet. On the hour I bring on Harry Kane for Jobel, who’s had a quiet match. Despite his goal in the Mexico game, Kane has yet to show me that he deserves a place in our strongest XI, so this is his chance.
In the 83rd minute, Juddy Lokando lofts a cross into the box from the right wing and Webb rises at the near post to head it across goal for Alli, but the Spurs midfielder can only turn it against the post from close range. It’s disappointing from a player of his calibre, but he soon makes amends. As we enter the final 5 minutes and as we continue to hammer on the door for our 4th goal, Captain Kane slips a pass into the box for his Tottenham Teammate, who blasts in his second goal of the day.
Well that was… Thorough. To be fair, Austria were always going to be the “whipping boy” of the group but I doubt we’ll have a match that easy for quite some time. Still, you can only beat what’s put in front of you and what was put in front of us today was really fucking poor, but it does move us up to 6 points and level with Spain. We stay 2nd in the group because the first thing used to differentiate in the EIL after points is results between teams and they do have a game in hand over us, but in the next break we get to play them again and challenge for the top spot. Let’s just hope we’re ready. And that Rui Faria doesn’t put whatever heinous plan he has into action before I can get my revenge on Pep the old fashioned way.