It’s pretty difficult to reach any conclusions about England after an entire qualifying campaign, let alone the first game of one. The roads to the past four tournaments saw relatively trouble-free progress, only for the same obstacles to be encountered when the big time came around.
Still, winning is the thing and performances — particularly in international football when the extenuating circumstances are there for all to see — are secondary. Which, with Sam Allardyce as manager, is just as well.
Allardyce is not the limited manager as he has sometimes been portrayed and does think more carefully about things than merely barking “4-4-2!” at his players and advising them to score some goals. But, equally, he is not likely to produce brilliant, sparkling football that will leave you gasping in astonishment at its beauty.
Indeed, for long spells of “Slovakia vs. England II: The sequel nobody asked for,” it almost looked like the 0-0 draw during Euro 2016 was simply being replayed.
Martin Skrtel provided the first big difference by trying desperately to get himself sent off and eventually succeeding with a stamp on Harry Kane’s ankle. The second came in the 95th minute as Adam Lallana scored his first international goal, thus securing the three points and win that exceeded even Allardyce’s public, prematch hopes.
As part of a fine tradition among England managers of downplaying expectations, Allardyce declared before the game that he would be happy with a draw, which was perhaps reasonable given the very recent, first-hand evidence England had about how difficult Slovakia were to face.
Realistic it perhaps was, but it wasn’t especially inspiring and that was reflected in the game, which was relatively grim fare, a few dashes of quality here and there aside. That said, it does lead one to ask: What exactly did anyone expect?
Allardyce produces largely functional, tough sides who eventually grind out results, or at least usually slightly exceed expectations in terms of results. In all of his club jobs, from Notts County to West Ham, he usually outperforms his predecessor and leaves the clubs in a better position than when he arrived.
That pragmatism is why he was appointed England manager — an ability to get the best from mediocre players was probably another factor — but it also means that there should be no surprise when his teams play football that could sometimes be described as “grim.”
Winning ugly is Allardyce’s modus operandi: This is what he does and, based on his first 90 minutes in charge of England, it’s what he will continue to do. If you thought he was the best choice for this job — of the English candidates, he clearly was — then you cannot complain when his team plays like they did in Trnava.
There were plenty of positives for England to take from Sunday’s win, most obviously that they eventually managed to break down obdurate opponents — “Slovakia just parked the bus,” said Allardyce after the game. “In fact they parked a double-decker” — and display the requisite persistence to punch through in the end, something with which they have struggled in the near and distant past.
Equally, there were moments of concern, not least Allardyce’s reaction to Wayne Rooney’s performance. We should all have accepted long ago that the captain does things most people miss and that are seen only by those who work with him, which is not out of the question.
An alternative theory is that Rooney has some magical hold over his managers, meaning he must be in the team, regardless of the quality of his performance. Allardyce’s post-game assessment that Rooney had “run the game” is a matter of opinion, but a little more troubling was the discussion of his position.
When Allardyce was appointed he made it clear that Rooney’s role would not be the midfield one he adopted in the European Championship, so it was rather surprising to see him play largely in that position on Sunday.
And further surprising was that, after the game, Allardyce said: “This is the most decorated outfield player in England. It’s not for me to say where he’s going to play.” That Rooney said he had been working playing there all week only added to the confusion.
Perhaps this was a minor thing and all that really matters are the conversations Allardyce has with his players, rather than those with journalists, but for a manager to claim he can’t tell his players in what positions to play, when that’s literally his job, was odd.
It’s too early to draw conclusions but there was much in this performance that was predictable, not least that England dominated possession but struggled to make the incisive break and aside from a few spells in the second half, they looked like the sort of team on which their new manager has made his name.
When you appoint Allardyce, you get Allardyce.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.