Five talking points as England edge past Slovenia

Dominic Fifield at Wembley
The Guardian
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain reacts by kicking a bottle as he is substituted during England’s 1-0 win over Slovenia. The Liverpool player remains an enigma.

England 1-0 Slovenia: Five talking points from the 2018 World Cup qualifier | Dominic Fifield

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain reacts by kicking a bottle as he is substituted during England’s 1-0 win over Slovenia. The Liverpool player remains an enigma.

1) Qualification ... but precious little inspiration

So England have booked their place at the World Cup in Russia and, before the final group game in Lithuania on Sunday, have now qualified for the past four major tournaments without losing a match.

Yet the level of choking anticlimax in evidence here should not be masked by Harry Kane’s stoppage‑time winner, and will ensure no one departs for the team retreat outside St Petersburg next summer expecting too much. This campaign has been a plod and, while the set-up might spy reasons for optimism, the nation still seeks evidence of clear development and, indeed, real progress.

There was precious little to enjoy at Wembley. It says much that, Kane’s goal aside, the crowd here was only whipped up into a frenzy while amusing themselves arrowing paper aeroplanes down on to the turf.

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2) So where was the excitement?

Gareth Southgate had set his players a challenge before kick-off. “We’ve got some exciting players,” he said. “I told them it’s about time we give a performance that underlines the quality we’ve got. We’ve got some players bang in form, particularly in an attacking sense.”

Except, once the pattern of this contest had set in, the thrill shrivelled up. It was back to the humdrum, decorated with the odd burst of pace against massed defence, and far too many missed passes for comfort.

More enterprising opponents might open up more, driven by their own ambitions, and that may suit England’s counter-attacking talents. But ask this side to prise apart a stubborn team and the huff and puff, not to mention the sight of Kyle Walker on free-kick duty, can be dispiriting. There were boos long before the end.

3) How England crave some subtlety

That may explain the dwindling home gates, even if few other qualifiers will attract more than the official attendance of 61,598, with this a second successive fixture played to an empty upper tier on the far side.

Plenty would have hoped to spy promise in the attacking triumvirate of Kane, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, who had only previously been on the pitch together for a minute under Southgate, and England’s better moments came from Rashford. But, for all that Rajko Rotman, Rene Krhin and Miha Mevlja took it upon themselves to crunch the hosts’ quicker players, this still felt rather clunky.

Sterling, quick‑footed and brighter after the break, is clearly not a creative No10, while Kane seemed to be trying too hard. It all lacked subtlety, the kind Southgate must pray Adam Lallana eventually supplies.

4) Oxlade-Chamberlain remains a mystery

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain remains an enigma. There were periods here when he busied himself on the flank, just as he had last month against Malta and Slovakia.

He darted away from Bostjan Jokic early on, and then slipped a cute pass inside Roman Bezjak seconds later for Rashford to collect. Both moments came within the opening six minutes. Yet there were also spells when the Liverpool player looked thoroughly peripheral, an isolated figure unable to batter through Slovenia’s back‑line.

His had arguably been a surprise selection given he has yet to start a Premier League match for his new club, and no one seems sure as to his best position. That, in itself, is starting to feel worrying.

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5) Will Hart go to Russia as first-choice goalkeeper

Joe Hart drew level with Gordon Banks’s 74 caps here, leaving him joint third in the list of England goalkeepers and only one game behind David Seaman’s tally, and claimed the award for man of the match, but a changing of the guard still feels close.

The West Ham United loanee had been outstanding in Slovenia earlier in the group and did well to thwart Tim Matavz near the end, but there were signs of nerves. He had been unsettled by Josip Ilicic’s early charge to the byline, when his attempt to grasp the ball might have resulted in a penalty, and an edgy performance summed up by three grasps to control Bojan Jokic’s header.

Jack Butland is likely to start in Vilnius. If the Stoke player seizes his chance, Hart’s status could still be shifting.

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