England have work to do but Gareth Southgate will be happy to reverse the Iceland trend, writes Adam Bate.
Speaking in the summer, England assistant manager Steve Holland acknowledged that the Euro 2016 defeat remains “everybody’s point of reference” when discussing the national team. The mental fragility shown that night in Nice has shaped much of Gareth Southgate’s thinking since taking control of the team just months after that defeat.
“Maybe you were in the stadium or watching it on holiday like me,” said Holland of England’s elimination, “looking round at the players thinking: ‘Bloody hell, they’ve gone. Where are the leaders? Where is the leadership?’ That is a pressure moment, so who is stepping forward? It looked to me like there was nobody.”
This desire to inspire his players to embrace adversity and respond far better to pressure situations prompted Southgate to put the team through a Royal Marines boot camp in the summer rather than indulge them with the customary golf break. Not everyone was convinced of the wisdom but the England manager will feel a measure of vindication now.
England’s 4-0 win over Malta on Friday followed by Monday’s 2-1 triumph over Slovakia will have done little to convince the critics that Southgate’s men can claim the World Cup next summer. But it has all but ensured they will be there. Much more than that, his players will be stronger for having endured difficult moments before emerging victorious.
Booed off in Valletta at half-time, England nevertheless scored four after the interval to win by a handsome margin. Against Slovakia, in a reverse of the scoring pattern of the Iceland defeat, they conceded inside the first five minutes but maintained enough composure to turn the game around and increase the gap on Group F’s second-placed side to five points.
Of course, there is much still to work on. For large parts of the game at Wembley, Slovakia appeared the more purposeful of the two teams with Stanislav Lobotka, the scorer of the game’s opening goal, playing a starring role. By comparison, England’s players looked tentative with neither the movement nor the touch to match the midfielder.
But for all England’s flaws, it was not a particularly panicked performance. This was not Iceland revisited. In fact, Marcus Rashford showed considerable character in recovering from his early error – it was he who surrendered possession for Lobotka’s goal – to deliver a man-of-the-match display that culminated in his winner just before the hour mark.
There was a certain irony in Rashford being the man culpable given that the teenager had been much praised for being one of the few England players to approach his task seemingly unshackled. The 19-year-old was introduced too late against Iceland and impressed again off the bench in Malta. The public demanded his inclusion and Southgate acquiesced.
But this mistake might have sent him into his shell in front of more than 67,000. Instead, he responded with an ambitious forward run soon after that set the tone for what was to follow. Rashford was determined to atone and it was not a huge shock when he took aim and crashed his shot from outside the box into the far corner of Martin Dubravka’s net.
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England succeeded in seeing out the final half an hour and a win against Slovenia at Wembley next month will be enough to seal their place at the World Cup with a game to spare. Evidently, there is a long way to go before Southgate can approach his Russian summer with any real optimism. But this was a test for his team and they passed it.
Prior to Monday, England had spent only 206 seconds of their campaign behind. That was late on at Hampden Park when Harry Kane’s equaliser clinched a point against Scotland. Now England have come from behind to win too. Not exactly Iceland redemption just yet, but at least these players have a new point of reference now. For Southgate, it is a start.