England’s U21 side defeated Switzerland on Monday evening, scoring three times in the final ten minutes to run out 3-1 winners at Brighton’s Amex Stadium.
It was a good response to a difficult situation. Shani Tarashaj had looped the visitors into the lead just before half-time and the Swiss protected their advantage well, crowding the middle of the pitch and forcing the hosts into overly-deliberate passages of play which rarely penetrated the eighteen-yard box.
For all their technical ability - and this squad, young as it is, has plenty - England were startlingly rigid. Jon Swift and Solly March impressed fleetingly with their delicate touches and Dom Solanke worked hard without the ball, but a lack of movement in the final-third meant that the passing phases were too often formulaic. England enjoyed a lot of the ball without ever really looking likely to do anything with it.
Duncan Watmore is new to this level, having been promoted to the U21 squad following his excellent performances in the 2015 Toulon tournament. He’s a frail looking player who could do with being locked in the Sunderland weights-room, but he possesses a quality which so few of his contemporaries seem to have: intelligence.
Introduced in place of Ruben Loftus-Cheek with fifteen minutes left to play, Watmore immediately changed the way England attacked. Nominally a winger, he has the useful habit of breaking into penalty-boxes and challenging defenders in the middle of the pitch - and it was that positional diversity which brought his side into the game.
First, Watmore beat goalkeeper Yvon Mgogo to a through-ball to earn England a penalty - converted by James Ward-Prowse - and then, three minutes later, the twenty-one year-old cut infield and lashed a deflected drive into the bottom corner from the edge of the box. In the dying minutes, with the game broken and the channels wide open, he escaped to the byline, beat a defender, and squared the ball for Chuba Akpom to side-foot England into an unassailable lead.
It was as impactful a performance from a substitute as you could wish to see and a cameo which ultimately earned him the Man of the Match award.
But it wasn’t surprising. Watmore is not the most gifted player of his generation and in both the Summer’s U20 squad and the U21 team of which he was a part of last night, he has lined up alongside more eye-catching talents and players who are able to do more with the ball. His value, however, is in his bravery and adventure - England were able to maintain their impressive wining record (thirteen straight victories in home qualifiers) because Watmore was willing to take risks without the ball and because he wasn’t content merely to be neat and tidy during his time on the pitch. Not “risks” in the sense of roulettes and video game flicks, but gambling runs and opportunistic movement.
He’s hard-working - that traditional English strength - but he combines graft with a level of pitch intelligence which isn’t immediately obvious. His runs are instinctive and effective and he seems to naturally understand where a defense’s weak points are and how best to exploit them. Age group football isn’t the same as the senior game, but his ability to find space and create dangerous passing-angles for his teammates is still very pertinent and he still does with a regularity that is worth mentioning. The developing England sides are all loaded with technically impressive players, but few who change games as regularly as Watmore does.
Watch him in isolation and he will seem unremarkable, but within the context of what he enables his teammates to do and the secondary dimensions that he provides, he looks like a very smart player. If hard-running and energy are indigenous English qualities, then understanding how to change a game is not: when Watmore was introduced on Monday, he recognised what his side were lacking and was instantly able to provide it. Credit Gareth Southgate for his tactical decision, but Watmore himself for carrying out his manager’s intentions.
That’s the truest indication that he’ll succeed in the professional game: he has a very high footballing IQ.
It’s a vague term and it’s difficult to quantify. As a consequence, he is exactly the sort of player who will spend his career being underestimated by everyone other than his own fans and whose value will escape those who are only interested in obvious contributions - ie. the vast, vine-sharing majority.
Don’t be fooled by his choirboy haircut and lack of outstanding attributes, though, Duncan Watmore is a gem of a player.