LONDON — Maybe it is time to accentuate the positives with England, remember the depths of despair from Euro 2016 and take every sign of progress as the possibility, however slight, that things may just be getting a little bit better.
It is never easy to put an England performance into context. They are either terrible or world-beaters, with nothing in between, but this 2-1 victory over Slovakia at Wembley was just that — not good, not bad, but the better side of indifferent.
Less than 18 months ago, Roy Hodgson’s team encountered Slovakia at Euro 2016 in Saint Etienne and failed to break down their stubborn opponents, ending up with a 0-0 draw that earned them a second-round tie against Iceland in Nice. We all know what happened next.
Nice became a watchword for all of the failures and negatives of English football rolled into one as Iceland overcame an early Wayne Rooney goal to win 2-1 and inflict on the Three Lions one of the most humiliating defeats in their history. The Iceland nadir is a relevant touchstone for this World Cup qualifying win against Slovakia, however, and precisely why the positives of this performance and victory should be highlighted.
In Nice, England fell behind in the first half and Hodgson’s players slowly found themselves crushed by the pressure of having to perform. Hope and belief visibly drained from the team. They simply could not cope with the challenge facing them and were unable to find the answers.
Slovakia are a strong technical team, comfortable in possession, and after going ahead in the third minute, they made life tough for England for half an hour. It was a test for Gareth Southgate’s players, a similar one to that they faced when going behind late in the game against Scotland in Glasgow, but they responded, as they did against the Scots in June.
“To come from behind against a side with very good footballers, particularly in midfield, we had to show character,” Southgate said. “Hopefully it is a sign of progress.
“This is a work in progress and the only way to do that is go through these experiences and win.
“We controlled the game in the second half and I am very proud of what the players have done. They showed real maturity.
“We weren’t hanging on and panicking at the end, we saw the game out, which was pleasing to see, but although it was an important step, there will be tougher tests to come.
“Still, it has been a big week for the players. The experience of Friday [booed by fans against Malta] means they have lived with spotlight of being an England player.
“They have had to show resilience and a good tactical reaction and while it’s an incredibly young team, they are good experiences to go through when you win because it builds belief.”
It may be a small step to redemption for some of England’s players, especially when placed alongside the development of their counterparts in Germany, France or Spain, but good news stories should not be sniffed at when it comes to England.
Too often in the past, they have allowed themselves to get carried away by failure or success, but Southgate is bringing some long overdue realism to the England setup and long may it continue. The true test will come in the build-up to Russia 2018, when the hype begins to start and England inevitably fall into the trap of believing it.
By talking of greater tests ahead, Southgate is attempting to inject a sense of caution, but at least he is able to do so after a victory.
And it was a win largely earned by the contribution of Marcus Rashford, who overcame the blow of giving a goal away with a third-minute mistake to make the equaliser for Eric Dier and then score a second-half winner. The Manchester United forward is not short on mental strength and Southgate admitted that the teenager stepped up to the plate to help England to victory.
“Marcus Rashford showed, like the rest of the team, great character,” Southgate said. “He made the mistake for their goal, but he kept persevering.
“It’s early for Marcus [in his career] so we have to keep things in perspective. He is exciting, we gave him last summer off from going with the U21s and he’s benefited from that.
“His maturity is excellent, he is never in awe of any occasion. He is still a work in progress, as we saw at the beginning of the game, but he is still getting stronger. He had a huge impact on the game.”
Southgate’s praise of Rashford was echoed by Dier, who did not waste the opportunity to joke about the youngster’s early mistake.
“Marcus Rashford’s night?” Dier said. “It wasn’t so good to begin with, but it got better.
“A fantastic show of character after making a mistake to score and then score the winner which got us closer to the World Cup, where hopefully he will shine.”
Rashford will be a potential star of Russia 2018 if he and England get there.
What they are actually capable of next year is another matter, but at least England are beginning to exorcise some of their ghosts.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_