When Jake Clarke-Salter captaining the England U21’s after replacing Demarai Gray – headed in off the post from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross, the fans who erupted in celebration in the Billy Wright Stand could be forgiven for thinking that the goal had sealed the tie. That was precisely when the game came to life.
Aside from the odd shaky moment, England looked relatively comfortable and looked to have had the game under control after Gray had given them an early first-half lead. Valentin Costache had other ideas, striking back for Romania five minutes after Clarke-Salter’s debut goal. Aidy Boothroyd’s Young Lions then demonstrated a characteristic that was very much in the public eye last year with the England U17 side at the World Cup: sticking to the plan and not panicking. That was in no small part helped the vast experience of his players, both internationally and in domestic leagues.
To say that the home side held on for the win would be a discredit to their effort. Every Romanian threat was countered and dealt with; some confidently, some nervously, but dealt with nonetheless. A block from Kyle Walker-Peters late in injury time stands out. Despite that, a few more goals – which England were perfectly capable of scoring – wouldn’t have hurt the team.
Tammy Abraham, in particular, looked incredibly frustrated with his teammates’ inefficiency, as well as his own. Every home attack was punctuated with a loud cheer of “ENGLAND!” and a somewhat irritated look from Abraham. Perhaps that convinced him to attempt an acrobatic shot from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross, to wrap up the game once and for all. His effort proved unsuccessful, but England scored immediately after through Clarke-Salter. One would imagine that would have calmed Abraham down, as he was later taken off to a round of applause.
Rivalling his frustration on the visitors’ side was playmaker Ianis Hagi. He did everything from waving his arms to looking desperately at the sky, and even exchanging words with the officials. All that trouble finally led to a late Romanian goal through Costache to pile the pressure on England.
The home side dominated possession (61.5%) with 87.1% passing accuracy (76.8% in attacking third), registered 15 key passes to Romania’s five and had four shots on target as compared to five from their opponents, proving Hagi had every right to think he was being let down by his teammates. However, the Romanian defenders should consider themselves safe from his possible wrath: they had to work hard to restrict England to two goals, making twice as many clearances (22) and committing thrice as many fouls (18).
England’s attacking intensity remained consistent throughout, even after the substitutions. In fact, it appeared to have increased in the aftermath of the changes. With five minutes left on the clock, James Maddison dragged his shot wide within a minute of coming on for Kieran Dowell, Dominic Calvert-Lewin tried a cheeky lob over Ionuţ Radu. Abraham would be proud.