The most positive takeaway from England’s 2 World Cup qualifying games is that England didn’t lose either game. A 2-0 victory over Malta, and a 0-0 draw with Slovenia means 4 points, and that England are top of their group. If you had asked Gareth Southgate if he would’ve taken that last Friday, he would’ve bitten your hand off.
However looking past the results, you have a team that is playing sleep inducing football, overshadowed by the players that aren’t starting, and ultimately a team that is not going to win the World Cup. Southgate himself said in the post-match press conference after the Slovenia game, that he had “inherited a mess” If anything these 2 games proved that it’s a mess that will need a lot of clearing up.
The Malta game was a comfortable win for England. At no point did England get out of 2nd gear, and comfortably dispatched of their opposition. Goals from Daniel Sturridge and Dele Alli, in the first half wrapped up the points for England. But it was far from an inspiring performance.
Southgate’s pre-match mantra was wanting this England side to be brave, casting aside the shackles that have restricted them in previous games, and eradicating the last few months of despair. However despite playing relative minnows Southgate did not show any bravery in his tactical set up, as he went with 4-2-3-1, ensuring that England played with 2 holding midfielders against a side ranked 176th in the world by FIFA.
Although his selection of Sturridge payed off with a goal, the fact that the most inform attacker in the country Marcus Rashford started on the bench was baffling. Especially give the fact that Rashford had scored a hat-trick for Southgate in his last Under-21 game, before taking on the senior role.
There was a debut for Rashford’s Manchester United team mate Jesse Lingard, who was solid if not spectacular. He drew a fine save, along with Dele Alli, Wayne Rooney, and Theo Walcott, from Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg. Although Jordan Henderson was given man of the match, in reality Hogg’s performance deserved that recognition.
As predicted a score-line that didn’t get close to double figures, resulted in a restless crowd. In defence of England, only one team came to play, with Malta there on a salvage mission to keep the result respectable. However the crowd took their frustration out on Wayne Rooney. The captain of the side and England’s all-time top goal scorer was booed by a section of the crowd.
Rooney who was deployed as a defensive midfielder in the game, had a good game, all the play went through him and he was dictating the 3 in front of him. However from that position he could not get into any attacking positions. So the crowd turned on him, unjustly as well. Southgate was quick to condemn the boo boys.
“I don’t understand [the booing] but that seems to be the landscape. I have no idea how that is expected to help him, for sure.”
This combined with the fact that Southgate was convinced that Slovenia would play a diamond formation against England, resulted in Wayne Rooney being dropped for the first time in his England career. Rooney, who has also suffered this fate at club level, faced the media alongside Gareth Southgate, and Rooney took the demotion with good grace.
“I’ve played 13 years non-stop for England, given everything, and a time comes when you are not the first name on the team sheet, like I have been in the past,”
Southgate was at pains to stress that Rooney remains the captain of his country, and the influence he retains over the squad, and the respect he has from the younger members of the squad. Although there was sound logic to the decision and it has been portrayed as one relating solely to the tie, it was obvious from the way both men spoke that it was far more significant than that.
The captain’s armband was given to Jordan Henderson, and Southgate promised a more fluid team than the one that had taken the pitch against Malta.
Although Rooney grabbed all of the pre match headlines, it was another stalwart of the England team in recent years, Joe Hart who stole the show against Slovenia. England actually started the game quite brightly and were on the front foot against Slovenia. However following a poor back pass from Rooney’s replacement Eric Dier, Hart was called into action to stop Josip Ilicic. He also made a similar save after Henderson made a similar back pass error.
Hart, who was clearly the man of the match, had his best moment seconds after the restart when he produced one of the finest saves of his career to push Jasmin Kurtic’s header on to the bar before reacting in an instant to clear the ball. Keepers are often given a hard time for their mistakes. But equally Hart should be praised for what was a moment of world class brilliance.
For Hart whose cast-iron confidence, and even his credibility, had been questioned after his struggles in France, and at club level, this summer, this display showed that he is capable of still being a high-class keeper.
However the fact that Hart was the man of the match, shows the level England played at. Despite a bright start England faded, and looked disjointed. They hardly tested Slovenia’s keeper, and both Dier and Henderson, looked out of sorts playing in front of the back four. The errors that both made would have been punished by opposition of a higher calibre and they should thank Hart, for keeping them out of trouble.
Jesse Lingard struggled out on the wing, and couldn’t seem to find his rhythm during the game. Theo Walcott produced his second disappointing England display in succession and was substituted. Walcott, like most struggled to replicate his club form, and if Raheem Sterling is fit next month, he will start.
Daniel Sturridge struggled to make an impact with few chances that he was afforded. Gary Cahill looked out of sorts, and made a few errors, again Chris Smalling should get his place back for the Scotland game. John Stones was a rare composed figure and Marcus Rashford at least showed a spark when he came off the bench. Rooney did come on for Dele Alli, but made little impact in the game.
There were few positive points as a run of 14 straight qualifying wins came to an end with a largely colourless and uninspired England effort. England once again struggled to keep possession, a fault that has been evident for some time for England, and the players played like they had never met each other before. With very few positive interchanges between one another.
However England will take solace in the fact that they came away from this game with a point, and a clean sheet, in a game they honestly deserved nothing from. They also are top of their group, and a look at other nations in the qualifying groups, shows England are no worse off than France, Sweden, and Spain
Gareth Southgate is now half-way through his audition, but at no point did he make an outstanding case to be the man to take England forward. However there has to be a realism about what Southgate has walked into. He is in charge of a side that was made grimly aware of its place in the international footballing world order during the Euros, and he played no part in that.
Southgate did, however, have two eminently winnable matches to start with and, while four points keeps them top of Group F, the draw in Slovenia was the first qualifier of any kind England have not won in three years, halting a run of 14 successive victories going back to 2013.
He also has a squad that has talent, certainly enough to be producing better than what was on offer on Tuesday. He’ll now need to concentrate on getting a result against Scotland, if he is to stand any chance of getting the job on a full time basis. But he needs to bring something new to a team that is sorely lacking in fresh inspiration.
By Rich Lee @RichLee2202