At least there was a little spite: we need that. Glenda may have accused England of being ‘too lacksadaisical’ – rightly – after 15 minutes but there had already been some sense that, yaknow, this was England v Scotland. There was more panic than savagery but it felt relatively spicy. Relatively.
Scotland started brighter and braver. My guess is that this was partly because Strachan’s simply entered shit-or-bust mode – his attacking line-up being more about his own mania than genuine consideration of English defensive weakness. The Pinks (say what?!?) were nevertheless appropriately pumped… and swift… and (almost) incisive.
England, though, looked weak in defence. Stones again tried hard to stroll but merely gave his colleagues either palpitations, or shocking passes, during an early period of Scots dominance. For someone so brilliant, he was bloody awful – but he did recover at least some of that Coolly Ambling Geezer thing.
The single moment of quality in a first half largely characterised by clumsiness, abstractedness and weirdly open spaces in central midfield was a stunning goal by Sturridge. Sturridge who had looked likely to disappear in the frenetic mediocrity all around.
The Liverpool man seems not to be one either for The Battle or the kind of Route One (Aerial) Scene this fixture seemed to be building – or un-building towards. But when England finally shifted the ball with purpose wide to the right then in, he stooped to flash a thrilling header home.
Neither Sturridge nor Rooney made a single other contribution of any significance in the half: Sterling was mixed and wasteful but he was present in a way most were not. Could just be me but the sight of Rose throwing himself to the floor in the opposition box late in that first period summed up something unsatisfactory about the general fare. It was competitive but often almost shockingly amorphous. Other than that gem – the goal.
After the break Scotland ran rings around England before being cruelly stung by Lallana’s flicked header. Brown, Snodgrass, Griffiths and the willing but limited Fletcher – I say that principally in relation to his almost complete lack of goal threat, which again was notable tonight – were bypassing or bustling around England… but to no effect. There were periods (early in both halves) where, had Scotland scored, the evening could really have turned traumatic for Mr Southgate. England really could have got beat tonight.
Miraculously, the Auld Enemy failed to convert half a dozen clear cut chances. Most of these were more about lack of awareness than misplaced shooting boots. The lurid pink shirts seemed mysteriously elusive when colleagues broke into Hart’s danger zone: incredibly, almost, nobody played anybody in. Strachan must have tempted to bring himself on in search of a composed final pass.
When England went 2-up, they probably deserved to be 2-1 down. When Cahill (who like his central partner Stones had been everything from scarily bad to inconsistent) notched the third with a simple header, the game was up, smothered – along with natural justice. England had been powerfully unconvincing in defence, strangely dysfunctional, sometimes absent in midfield and sporadically deadly up top. All of Stones, Cahill, Henderson, Dier, Rooney, Sterling and Sturridge plainly underachieved, yet the scoreboard read 3-0.
Henderson and Dier are limited and one-paced players with the limited remit of the deep-lying midfielder to protect them. Yet too often the porous centre of the England defence was exposed, suggesting they either have inadequate noses for danger or, perhaps, too many instructions jangling round their craniums. Surely their prime motive as soon as the ball is lost should be to deny space? Keep it simple, keep your shape?
Rooney was again ineffective for the most part. This may have been because (for me) Sturridge makes too few darting or threatening runs, shows too infrequently, particularly when games are tight and physical. (He wins relatively few high balls too, incidentally – again reducing the possibility for drama/momentum/sudden goal threat.) If nothing’s happening in front of you, you (as a midfielder) tend to pass without meaning or penetration – sideways.
This does not entirely account for Rooney or Henderson or Dier’s ordinariness tonight. They need surely to mix the tempo and commit to runs, to add value to the possession they inevitably have? Lallana did this stuff better – but then again he can sprint, and seems to like to sprint forward into space to receive or invite the pass.
A note on Sterling. He was almost embarrassingly, distractedly, greedily, boyishly poor in the second half. So poor words must be said. It might be that he is something of a vulnerable soul, so Southgate or his successor might need to exercise some skill and sensitivity when dealing with this talented young man. Either that or tell him to pass the fucking thing.