LONDON - Gareth Southgate wanted England to qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals in style. Harry Kane’s late winner in the 1-0 win over Slovenia on Thursday sealed England’s place in Russia, but a match of numbing tedium was so poor Sunday’s now academic final group match in Lithuania will test the loyalty of the country’s armchair supporters after the dross at Wembley.
Job done, qualification secured, but no other reason for celebration as it was difficult to take too many — if any — positives from a match of mostly numbing tedium that saw an uninspired England concede possession, lack conviction and creativity. Marcus Rashford the notable exception in attack and Joe Hart for a couple of crucial saves, England was ponderous and labored. It could, as one observer remarked, have put a glass eye to sleep.
The main interest in the press box for much of the game was trying to remember a more dreary display from an England team, while everyone was left wondering how decent club players have become so ordinary on national team duty under a succession of national managers who have failed to get the best out of the players at their disposal.
Any optimism that England may cause a surprise in Russia was dampened by yet another now predictable plodding performance against a team ranked 55th in the world. Germany and company are unlikely to want to avoid England, which will not be among the top seeds when the draw for the finals is made.
Former England international Chris Waddle, commentating on the Slovenia match for BBC 5 Live, said: “I can’t think of anything to say, it’s that bad. It’s terrible.” Though England was on the verge of qualifying for Russia, fans were streaming out of Wembley long before the final whistle. Glenn Hoddle chose England goalkeeper Hart, who should have conceded a penalty in the first half, as its Man of the Match, which said it all.
Kane’s winning goal was scored in the fourth minute of six minutes of stoppage time, the last two added on for a pitch invader. Such behavior can never be condoned, but England owes him a debt of goal-scoring gratitude.
The stats may indicate a relatively comfortable qualification for unbeaten England, though the road to Russia has been rocky. It needed a last minute goal to win in Slovakia, a stunning save by Hart to deny Slovenia in the 0-0 draw in Ljubljana and a stoppage time equalizer by Kane to salvage a point away to Scotland. Kane’s strike against Slovenia was England’s third stoppage time goal which earned five qualifying points.
Southgate said: “Slovenia defended resolutely and we weren’t as sharp as we’d like to be. We stuck at it and the number of late goals is no coincidence. This team has potential, but we have a hell of a lot of work to do.”
Home friendlies against Germany and Brazil next month will give a good indication of just how much work is needed over the next seven months for England, a constant work in progress.
The inclusion of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, not even good enough to start for Liverpool since his transfer from Arsenal’s substitutes’ bench, underlined the paucity of England’s creative department. The first time most at Wembley noticed Chamberlain was playing was when he was substituted in the 64th minute by Jesse Lingard, who hasn’t started a Premier League or Champions League match for Manchester United this season.
The midfield of Chamberlain, Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson is pedestrian and the return of the suspended Dele Alli only marginally raises hopes. England has no one like Toni Kroos, Luka Modrić, Marco Verratti, Andrés Iniesta, Eden Hazard or N’Golo Kante who can dominate and control midfield (and that’s just in Europe).
No one can doubt England’s consistency in qualifying for finals. The victory over Slovenia extended its unbeaten record in World Cup or European Championship qualifiers to 38, including 29 wins. During its run England has had five different managers, but from the debris of the debacle at Euro 2016, when Roy Hodgson’s team was sent home after losing to Iceland, England has barely improved.
If Southgate has one reason to be cheerful, it is Kane. It is too long since England had a player of potential world class, but Kane is quickly moving up the ladder. With the exception of Arsenal supporters, Kane is admired and respected nationwide. When he was substituted at Huddersfield, the home fans gave him a round of applause, despite scoring twice against the Terriers.
“Harry has the profile to be a legend here,” said Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino. “He is one of the best strikers in the world, very professional and someone with a strong character.”
Kane is a multi-tasking striker. Nominally right-footed, he has scored 11 goals with his left this year for Spurs,he is commanding in the air and has become a reliable scorer from set-pieces and penalties. It is not just Kane’s goals that make him so special, he contributes to the team in every way. When Spurs or England loses possession, he becomes the first defender. He is unselfish, has a prodigious work rate and is close to becoming the complete center-forward.
A bonus is that Kane is as nice a footballer as you could wish to meet, his feats exclusively for the sports pages rather than news.
“Kane is in extraordinary form,” said Slovenia coach Srečko Katanec who claimed with some justification England did not deserve to win at Wembley. With 42 goals in 36 matches so far for club and country in 2017, Kane is second only to Lionel Messi and the Tottenham striker is, indeed, in extraordinary form — even more so when you consider he was injured for a month last spring and failed to score in August.
As England prepares for Russia, it is becoming a team that relies almost exclusively on one player. Injury to the striker is too worrying to even be contemplated.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.