Liverpool’s Joe Gomez defied his years with an outstanding full debut for England against Brazil, writes Nick Wright at Wembley.
For the yellow-clad Brazil supporters clustered in the away end at Wembley and the thousands more dotted around every corner of the stadium, it was not quite the party they came for. The drums were loud and the shrieks almost deafening whenever the ball found its way to Neymar, but out on the pitch England were determined to dampen their mood.
Time and again Brazil came forward and time and again they were repelled. A second consecutive 0-0 draw might not usually be viewed positively for England, but it only took a cursory glance at the team-sheet to see the gulf between the sides. Brazil had the luxury of leaving Thiago Silva and Roberto Firmino on the bench; England named Lewis Cook and Jack Cork on theirs.
Injuries had reduced Gareth Southgate’s options but they also opened the door for Joe Gomez to become England’s next young star after Ruben Loftus-Cheek shone so brightly against Germany on Friday. Gomez was thrown on for his debut when Phil Jones pulled up with a calf problem in that game, and the Liverpool youngster kept his place ahead of Gary Cahill against Brazil.
An evening up against Neymar is about as tough as a full debut can get for a 20-year-old with only 14 Premier League appearances under his belt, but watching Gomez you wouldn’t have known it. On the right of John Stones and Harry Maguire in a youthful back three, he barely put a foot wrong.
The pre-match pyrotechnics were still cooling down when he set the tone for his performance, rising for a high ball with Gabriel Jesus and sending the Manchester City striker sprawling to the turf as he won it. Any fears that he may be overawed by the occasion immediately disappeared.
With support from Kyle Walker outside of him and a steady stream of instructions from Stones to his left, Gomez looked assured from the outset. A few minutes before half-time, he even had the confidence to execute a Cruyff turn up against Neymar, sending the £200m man the wrong way as he nonchalantly stroked the ball onto a team-mate.
Southgate had called on his defenders to be brave and Gomez did not let him down. There was a misplaced pass in his own half which almost landed England in trouble shortly after the break, but it was a rare lapse. He finished the game with an 87 per cent passing accuracy and his defensive contribution was even more impressive.
His best moments came in the closing stages. The game was becoming stretched and Brazil were threatening to overrun the hosts, but Gomez was alert when it mattered. An outstanding covering tackle on his Liverpool team-mate Firmino drew a roar of appreciation from the home fans in the 82nd minute, and shortly after that there was a crucial block to stop a Neymar through ball.
“Joe has been given the man-of-the-match award and rightly so,” said Southgate in his post-match press conference. “We know his athleticism is a real asset, but there was also his decision-making and his calmness in the face of the high-quality movement and the high-quality through passes that he had to read.”
Reading those passes was an area in which he excelled. The former Charlton youngster has played exclusively at right-back this season for Liverpool, but his positioning was impeccable in Southgate’s back three. The statistics showed Gomez made eight interceptions in total – more than the rest of his team combined and twice as many as any Brazil player.
Gomez described it as a “great experience” after the game and Southgate agreed. “We can look at areas to improve but we have found so many positives in terms of players who have performed at this level for the first time,” he said. “It’s not going to get much tougher for them that it was tonight. They will gain huge confidence.”
England do not return to action until March but Gomez will have opportunities to build on that confidence at Liverpool, where Nathaniel Clyne has just been ruled out for a further three months. Gomez is already a favourite with Jurgen Klopp having started eight of their 11 Premier League games so far, and it now seems Southgate is similarly enamoured.
It is not difficult to understand why. With fearsome physicality and maturity beyond his years, Gomez is suddenly an England centre-back with a bright future. And on Tuesday night, as the drums died down and the shrieks fell silent, his performance was instrumental in ensuring it was the England supporters who went home happier.