England’s Joe Hart made several excellent saves to earn a point against Slovenia in Ljubljana. Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters
Gareth Southgate has now been in charge of two games for England and, however hard you look, it is not easy to see too many flickers of improvement. They were poor again here in Ljubljana and fortunate, in the extreme, not to suffer their first defeat in a qualifying fixture for seven years.
For that, they can thank Joe Hart on a night when England were alarmingly susceptible in defence and rarely passed the ball with any authority. Nobody could have seriously expected Southgate to remove all the team’s imperfections but it was reasonable to think England could have played considerably better and, if the last two matches have formed part of the selection process, it is hard to find any compelling evidence to begin the case for him getting the job full-time.
Perhaps that is a harsh conclusion to draw but, Hart aside, it was difficult to identify a single England player who impressed on a night when Wayne Rooney was restricted to the role of a 73rd-minute substitute and, once again, there were a few boos at the final whistle from England’s fans.
At least Rooney can still consider himself a favourite of England’s hardcore followers. Three days after the Wembley crowd subjected him to minor boos, the first appreciative cry of “Rooney”, reverberated round Slovenia’s flat-pack stadium within the opening 90 seconds. That quickly became the soundtrack to the evening. More notably, there was voluble support for Sam Allardyce, including a loud rendition of “Justice for Allardyce”, and various other chants making it clear what they thought of the Daily Telegraph for bringing him down. If these fans want Southgate to take charge permanently, this was not an occasion when that really became evident. His name was not sung once.
Southgate had explained Rooney’s absence because of his belief Eric Dier was England’s outstanding performer in Euro 2016 and, together with Jordan Henderson, would provide greater athleticism in central midfield and a better understanding of the team’s defensive responsibilities. England’s caretaker manager did, however, also make the point that it deprived him of a player who could put his foot on the ball and help to dictate the tempo and it was certainly an embarrassing moment for Dier when an early moment of carelessness strayed dangerously close to costing his side a goal.
Dier’s backpass was intended for Joe Hart but came up short, leaving Roman Bezjak with a clear run at goal. Hart had anticipated the danger and charged off his goalline to narrow the angle and block the striker’s shot. The danger was still not cleared and, with England struggling to get the ball away, Jasmin Kurtic curled the next effort against the post. It was a slightly dishevelled start from England without a great deal of evidence that Southgate had put together a particularly cohesive forward line. Jesse Lingard and Theo Walcott threatened only sporadically on the wings. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose did try to advance from their full-back positions but that tactic has worked better on other occasions and, though it was a difficult playing surface, that does not excuse the frequency with which passes were misplaced.
Southgate was probably entitled to feel aggrieved about the moment, after 14 minutes, when Sturridge was knocked over by a Slovenian defender in the penalty area but, by half-time, England’s best piece of play had come 50 yards from goal when Dele Alli evaded his nearest opponent by impudently slipping the ball through the gap in his legs. England’s players could certainly have moved the ball with more grace and they were indebted to Hart again at the start of the second half. Twice, Slovenia had corners from the right and on both occasions Hart denied them with outstanding goalkeeping. The second save, in particular, from Kurtic’s back-header was a reminder of Hart’s occasional brilliance and the kind of moment to re-ignite the debate about why he is spending the season on loan at Torino.
Yet it must have been startling for Southgate to see how vulnerable his team looked at the back. Those corners originated from a slick move that left Josep Ilicic with a clear sight of goal only to try another pass, unsuccessfully, when he would have been much better letting fly with a shot. Ilicic did have a go from much further out, just before the hour, and his left-foot effort was not far wide. England were defending far too generously and lucky to get away with it.
More than anything, there was a lack of control. Henderson’s misplaced backpass, cut out by Ilicic, in the 70th minute was just another example. Gary Cahill missed the saving tackle and Hart, once again, saved his team. Slovenia were undoubtedly encouraged by their 1-0 win against Slovakia on Saturday but it would still have been reasonable to expect England might play with a touch more composure.
Cahill, in particular, was wretched and could conceivably have been sent off near the end for a studs-up challenge. He, and England, were lucky a poor night did not become a worse ordeal.