England revived their chances of reaching the semi-finals of the Under-21 European Championship after goals from Alfie Mawson and Nathan Redmond rescued Aidy Boothroyd’s team after they had trailed at half-time against Slovakia.
Having been eliminated at the group stages in this competition at the past three tournaments, the writing appeared to be on the wall when Martin Chrien put their opponents ahead in the 23rd minute. But a bold substitution by the former Under-20s coach inspired a dramatic turnaround that leaves England with their fate in their own hands ahead of their final group match against hosts Poland on Thursday.
Boothroyd had opted for one change to the side who drew with Sweden in the opening match, with Reading’s John Swift coming in for Jacob Murphy. Perhaps more significant was the switch to a diamond midfield, with Redmond partnering Tammy Abraham up front and Lewis Baker handed a deeper role.
At first, the tactic seemed to have had the desired effect as England looked like more of a threat going forward with the captain, James Ward-Prowse, aiming to hit the front two with early balls in order to utilise the pace of the two strikers. Other than a Nathaniel Chalobah effort that trickled harmlessly wide, however, they could muster no shots on target in the first 20 minutes and were made to pay by Chrien’s clever header from Albert Rusnak’s corner that gave Jordan Pickford no chance.
Baker almost equalised immediately, only for his left-footed effort from distance to drift just wide. That was about as good as it got for the rest of the first half, with the familiar failings they exhibited against Sweden in the final third once more painfully obvious. Pickford was on hand to palm away Jaroslav Mihalik’s shot from outside the box just before half-time or it could have been even worse for Boothroyd’s side.
Ward-Prowse did force Adrian Chovan into his first save in stoppage time with a curling free-kick but the England manager knew he had to act or face another embarrassing exit from an international tournament. His solution was to bring on the Norwich winger Murphy at right-back for the disappointing Mason Holgate in the hope he could inspire a comeback.
The change immediately had the desired effect as Redmond’s shot was turned behind for a corner. That was cleared to Murphy and it was his cross that was eventually turned in by Mawson from close range at the second attempt.
Suddenly England seemed to grow in belief and Abraham was denied only by an outstretched Slovakian boot from Baker’s cross. The 19-year-old, who spent last season on loan at Bristol City from Chelsea, then played a crucial part in England’s second goal as he held off his marker superbly to allow Ward-Prowse to pick out Redmond with an excellent crossfield ball. The Southampton forward made no mistake as he cut inside on to his right foot and drilled the ball past Chovan.
Slovakia threw on the Borussia Mönchengladbach forward Laszlo Benes in an attempt to find a way back into the game yet, marshalled by the excellent Mawson, England’s defence stood firm.