England getting closer to Russia 2018, but they have been bland and uninspiring during their campaign.
Southgate's England lacking a winning culture ahead of World Cup qualifier against Slovakia
“Watching England is an emotional experience for everybody,” Gareth Southgate reflected.
Think of David Beckham’s spectacular, injury-time free kick against Greece or the bloodied, bandaged Paul Ince’s display of defiance in Rome. Sometimes when England have qualified for World Cups, indelible impressions have been made.
Watch Beckham's free kick
A sequel seems unlikely. And not just because it is mathematically impossible to book their place at Wembley on Monday night, although victory against Slovakia would take them five points clear of their closest challengers with two games to go.
“This result can virtually get us to Russia,” Southgate said.
If that would bring approval, different emotions have been displayed in a qualifying campaign short of drama and with fewer memorable moments. The eventual verdict may be that Sam Allardyce, not Southgate, ensured England’s progress.
Adam Lallana’s 95th-minute decider in Slovakia a year ago in Allardyce’s sole game has grown in importance. Jan Kozak’s team lost their first two qualifiers. They have reeled off five successive wins since then. England’s has felt a procession to Russia, yet since Southgate took the reins, initially on a caretaker basis, Slovakia have taken more points than England. They arrive at Wembley as the pool’s form horse.
“A good team,” Southgate said.
England beat too few of them, as their record on the major stage illustrates. They have not won a World Cup knockout game in for 11 years. Indeed, they have not won any World Cup match for seven.
For all Southgate’s attempts to introduce a new culture off the pitch, England require a winning one on it. The highest-place team his England have defeated is Scotland, 58th in the world rankings. That is partly a consequence of deliberately arranging friendlies against testing opponents, and they were seconds from defeating Spain in November, but results are underwhelming.
It may not matter yet. Indeed, it may be welcome. Near-perfect qualifying campaigns and high-profile friendly victories have not translated to tournament excellence in recent years. “We’re by no means the finished article,” Harry Kane said.
Perhaps, however, England are simply not particularly good.
They were flattered by the 4-0 scoreline in Malta on Friday, when they scored three late goals, and defensive in their reactions to criticisms. “We created three really good chances in the first 10 minutes. If you score the early goal, the complexion of the game is really different,” Southgate said.
Instead the teams were tied at the interval, when the boos were indicative. Kane asked politely for patience afterwards, but it spoke of a disconnect between insiders who do not understand the reaction and outsiders tired of mediocrity.
England's win over Malta
“People underestimate the teams we play,” the striker said, but Malta are ranked 190th in the world. Presumably Fifa underestimate them, too.
Pointedly, too, Southgate said the Slovakia game is “a great chance for the Wembley crowd to get behind us” although, ever reasonable, he reflected that “at 1-0 with not long left [against Malta], there will be dissatisfaction with the scoreline".
It would be a more respectable scoreline on Monday night. “I think it will be our biggest challenge in the group,” said Phil Jones, a certainty to start in defence.
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There will also be continuity with Jordan Henderson retaining the captaincy but Eric Dier, who was suspended for the Malta match, should return, presumably in place of Jake Livermore. Southgate did not require two holding midfielders against the minnows. He might now with Marek Hamsik to police.
England lack a playmaker of similar quality, a reason why they can be so laboured and uninspired. They have consoled themselves with talk of professional performances, but they hope frustration is replaced by celebration on Monday night as Russia grows ever nearer.