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Last night was that common night of national realisation: England really aren't very good at football

The Independent logo The Independent 05/10/2017 Jack Pitt-Brooke
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In the months leading up to any tournament there is always a moment of national realisation that the England team is not as good as we hoped. Last night was that night.

It usually hits in the early June friendlies. Those games are meant to fine-tune the squad, but in fact confront the country with the fact that no combination of players will be able to make any impact on the tournament. This year, though, the process has been mercifully sped up. There can be no 2018 let-down after this.

To take the more immediate positives, this win was enough to win Group F for England, confirming their automatic qualification for the World Cup in Russia. They need neither a result in Vilnius on Sunday nor a two-legged November play-off. Instead they will host Germany and Brazil here at Wembley next month, a chance to test themselves against the best. 

What can England expect in Russia? (Sky Sports)

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But to take everything other than the positives, this was dismal. It should have been a celebration of qualification and a marker of how England have improved in the 12 months of Gareth Southgate’s tenure. It could even have been a message to the rest of the world about how dangerous this generation of attackers will be in Russia next year. It was none of those things. It was barely even a win, and would not have been were it not for Harry Kane’s 94th minute winner, forcing its way through the arms of the usually impeccable Jan Oblak in the Slovenia goal.

England have plenty of experience now of trying to break down defensive teams who come to Wembley, dig in and frustrate them. But rarely have they handled it as badly as this. They were dull and predictable in attack, desperately unimaginative in midfield and glibly casual in defence. They gifted more than enough chances for Slovenia – 10 goals in eight qualifiers before tonight – to win the game.

Although this was technically a qualifier, it had the empty feel of a low-level friendly, and the yet the performance was as bad as England often offer up in tournaments. The performance, although not quite the result, made it a companion piece to the 0-0 with Slovakia in St Etienne last June. Tonight there was no Roy Hodgson, Jack Wilshere or Wayne Rooney, but the effect was the same.

England – and this is not Southgate’s fault – had absolutely no quality in midfield. With Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson in the middle they had power and industry but almost no nuance or skill. There was no tempo, no surprise passes, nothing to catch Slovenian’s well-drilled defence off guard.

After a flurry of blocked shots just after the hour mark, the winner eventually came in the fourth minute of six added on at the end. For Kyle Walker to find space down the right and whip in such a good cross is credit to his tirelessness, and of course Kane took it well. But it cannot disguise the reality of the evening.

There were plenty of good players on the pitch for England, not just Kane but Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling too. But those three are all lucky enough to play in well-organised, well-drilled teams with a top coach and a clear plan.

And , it must be said, with creative team-mates. Kane has Christian Eriksen, Sterling has David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, Rashford has Paul Pogba and Juan Mata.

England, clearly, have no-one like that. The closest is Dele Alli, who was suspended tonight, although he is more of a final-third player now than a creator. Adam Lallana is England’s most imaginative man but for as long as he is injured, there is very little to knit this team together.

All there was, ultimately, was trying to get the fast players one-on-one with Slovenian defenders in the first half. And then trying to get crosses into the box in the second. It turned out to be enough to get the three points on the night, right at the very end. But sometimes, even with a place in the World Cup at stake, there are more important things than the result.

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