English public needs inspiring
Three days on from the jeers in Attard, England players will have walked out to the Wembley pitch hoping not to hear another rendition of that time-honoured standard ‘We’re f****** s***’. Fortunately for them, there was hardly anyone around the get the chorus going.
The national stadium was half-full by the time of the kick-off and though many of the empty seats could be attributed to a ticket-printing problem outside, that excuse hardly reflects well on the Football Association. Once all were in and accounted for, the atmosphere was hardly rousing for a qualifier with something riding on it.
The problem is that the renovated Wembley, a decade on from its re-opening, has not yet graduated from feeling like one long airport terminal with a slab of turf in the middle. Gentle qualification groups and lifeless friendlies, often against superior opponents who eke out narrow wins, have not helped but what those paying customers need more than anything is an inspiring England side. That, on last night’s evidence, still seems some way off.
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Complacency cost England early on
Such was the apathy around Wembley, it was easy to forget that a slip here and England would hand the initiative over to their opponents and for the first three minutes, that fact appeared to escape Gareth Southgate’s players too.
Stanislav Lobotka’s strike to put Slovakia ahead was described as a surprise by television commentators, but it was telegraphed by the horribly sloppy start that England made. Had it not been for Kyle Walker’s speed, the visitors could have gone ahead even earlier, but the Manchester City full-back produced a remarkable recovery run to deny Robert Mak a route in behind the backline.
There was another opening, this time down England’s left, a minute later and when the opener finally came, every white shirt capable of defending against it looked lethargic. This qualification phase has been more testing than one look at the table suggests, and it would be wise for Southgate to make sure his side do not start so slowly in their last two tests.
Rashford must be used correctly
Marcus Rashford was at fault for that goal after he showed the type of inexperience that we have rarely seen in his short career so far. To be tackled once while carrying the ball out from right-back was unfortunate, but twice was careless and then to cap it all off he failed to track Lobotka’s run into the box.
Such risks are part of putting faith in youth, but in Rashford’s defence, he had been put in at the deep end. It is one thing throwing a 19-year-old in for only his second competitive start in a potentially decisive qualifier, it is another to play him in an unfamiliar position. The Manchester United youngster has seldom impressed on the right flank for his club side, yet he was deployed there by Southgate while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain took up a place on left.
England struggled to find any rhythm in the final third until the two eventually swapped around half an hour in. Once Rashford was allowed to cut inside onto his right, England’s attack had a new element and there was more purpose about their play. That the teenager should score the decisive goal, after an all-round improvement in performance, was fitting.
Hart does himself no favours
While Rashford was rightly blamed for Slovakia’s opening goal, it at least provided an answer to the questions surrounding Joe Hart’s position.
There is no reason why the West Ham United goalkeeper, who has seen the ball fly past more times than any other Premier League goalkeeper in the opening weeks of the season, should be guaranteed a place in this side. Hart was a surprise selection for the win in Malta but this fixture, against a team of actual professionals, would always be the real test of his fading credentials.
Lobtoka’s finish, though neatly taken, was hit directly at Hart and would have been blocked by an imposing goalkeeper. Hart allowed it to pass right through him. Jack Butland was watching on from the substitutes’ bench, but may not be for much longer.
Alli and Kane axis needs more work
If England can make the partnership between Harry Kane and Dele Alli work as well as it does at club level before next summer, their chances of a creditable World Cup in Russia will go through the roof. At present, however, it simply is not working.
The Tottenham Hotspur pair are this England side’s two best attacking talents, and enjoyed a genuinely outstanding partnership at the tail end of the last Premier League season. Southgate appears keen on transferring it to the international stage, regularly deploying Alli in a central No 10 role behind his club team-mate, but it is yet to happen.
The old excuse of international football about a lack of time together on the training pitch do not apply, of course. Perhaps the answer is to try and emulate Mauricio Pochettino’s side. England have nobody with the creativity of Christian Eriksen, granted, but it may be worth finding the next best thing in order to extract as much as possible out of the Kane-Alli axis.