LONDON — Three quick thoughts from England’s 3-0 World Cup qualifying win over Scotland at Wembley on Friday.
1. England cruise to stay on course for Russia
England are on course to qualify serenely for World Cup 2018; Scotland’s hopes already teeter on the brink. This 113th meeting of the old rivals was hardly an advert for either side’s merits, but it was done and dusted by the hour mark, headers from Daniel Sturridge, Adam Lallana and Gary Cahill ensuring England remain top of Group F and boosting Gareth Southgate’s chances of landing the managerial role on a full-time basis — should he want it, of course.
It became a comfortable victory, but chances were thin on the ground during the early stages. England claimed a penalty that was waved away in the 13th minute when Raheem Sterling, who started on the right of a flexible trio supporting Sturridge, went to ground after beating Lee Wallace to the ball. Scotland looked obdurate opponents at that stage but were breached midway through the first half after England’s first significant spell of pressure.
Scotland seemed to have survived when Grant Hanley, throwing himself in the way of Sterling’s 25-yard shot, deflected the ball away. But it spun right to Kyle Walker and he took it in his stride, clipping a perfect delivery onto the head of Sturridge, who got ahead of Christophe Berra and flashed an unstoppable header past Craig Gordon.
The visitors should have responded instantly, but Hanley could only plant a free header high and wide from Robert Snodgrass’s corner. A scrappy opening period concluded with little further action and the impression that both sides, when attacked, were vulnerable.
England were certainly rocking just after half-time when James Forrest and Snodgrass both missed chances to level. But the hosts effectively put the match to bed shortly afterward, Danny Rose delivering from the left for Lallana, arriving late, to head clinically across Gordon. It was a near-carbon copy, manufactured from the opposite flank, of the first goal.
Shortly after the hour mark it was three. Wayne Rooney produced a corner from the left and Cahill, timing his run and jump well, glanced home. Sterling somehow failed to make it four, skying a Jordan Henderson ball from virtually under the crossbar, but it was hardly a miss on which England needed to fret.
2. Sloppiness will concern Southgate
Let nobody be under too many illusions: England deserved their win, but for long periods this was still a flawed performance in a ragged game short on quality, and it is hard to shake off the sense that better opposition would have made them pay for a level of sloppiness that threatened to cost them.
Southgate is preaching a considered passing style, building from the back, but on this evidence it will take time to implement and perhaps it will do everyone a favour if their interim manager, although not a glamorous name, signs on for the long term. Although England looked considerably more comfortable after putting the game to bed, their lack of care in possession was inescapable and they may receive a far harsher lesson in what happens when you turn the ball over too easily when they host Spain for a friendly here on Tuesday.
Lallana was dispossessed 10 yards outside his own penalty area by Darren Fletcher early on, while a loose Rooney pass was seized upon more dangerously by Leigh Griffiths on the half-hour mark. Cahill and John Stones were jittery when pressured and the latter will not look back fondly on the moment shortly after the break when Forrest caught him dwelling on the ball and he was forced to haul the winger down, taking a yellow card for his trouble.
There were periods when Scotland, hardly a team of top-level technicians, kept possession more effectively than England. On the flip side, there was some suggestion here of the extra urgency that Southgate is attempting to instill into his setup.
Rooney, Sterling and Lallana all dropped deep frequently to collect the ball and set a brisk tempo from deep, while Walker and Rose were encouraged to push high in the manner that works so successfully in Tottenham colours. The first goal, which came about after Sterling had foraged inside with Walker bombing into the space he had vacated out wide, was particular evidence of a plan coming together.
It was a case of “job done” for Southgate and his players, but the hardest work still lies ahead.
3. Bedraggled Scotland fall short
Scotland have played worse than this, but quality eventually told, and for anybody with tartan sensibilities this score line will be an embarrassment. It is hard to see a way back for their bid to reach Russia, and equally difficult to see much more life in the tenure of Gordon Strachan after a second successive three-goal defeat.
They will point to the 60-second spell after half-time on which this match hinged. First, Wallace centred and, after Griffiths dummied intelligently, Forrest shimmied inside but could only shoot wide of a static Joe Hart’s left post. Moments later Wallace was marauding again, cutting back to Snodgrass. It was another clear chance but the Hull City player did not quite make the right contact and Cahill, diving in front of him, blocked superbly.
At the other end Lallana quickly made a more difficult opportunity count and there was to be no way back for the Scots. It demonstrated the difference between these two teams neatly enough on a night when Strachan’s side, which included eight changes from a chastening loss in Slovakia, had in fact begun positively.
They committed men forward early on in their 4-3-3 and troubled England’s defence with their harrying, but failed to make the most of several good situations around the penalty area — most notably at 1-0 when Griffiths shot tamely at Hart instead of putting Snodgrass clear on goal after Rooney’s mistake.
By the end they were well beaten and virtually out of the World Cup running. Whether or not Strachan is given the chance to improve matters when they host Slovenia in March, sweeping changes are surely needed — and a generation headed by RB Leipzig winger Oliver Burke surely needs phasing in. Scotland did their best here, but it was proved to be well short of what was required.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.