LONDON — England vs. Scotland is the world’s oldest international fixture, dating back to 1872, and at times it seemed both sides were dramatically unsuited to modern football. This was eventually a comfortable 3-0 England victory in World Cup qualifying on Friday. But the score line flattered Gareth Southgate’s England side, who allowed Scotland several fine chances when 1-0 ahead.
This was Southgate’s third game in charge, and while he can hardly be blamed for England’s long-standing problem with passing, the defining feature of his three games has been absolutely wretched distribution from deep positions. Away in Slovenia, where England drew 0-0, Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier both played wayward passes that acted as perfect through-balls for the opposition, and England were rescued by one of keeper Joe Hart’s best performances for the national side.
Here, England weren’t quite so charitable in directly creating chances for the opposition, but they were frequently sloppy on the ball inside their own half, playing wayward passes or being caught in possession, as Southgate acknowledged afterward.
“There were some moments where we weren’t controlled … some of our play with the ball and our change of positions was good, but some of our first-phase possession play was sloppy. We caused our own problems and gave up more opportunities than we should have,” he said. “So there’s lots to reflect on and improve upon. But there was lots to be pleased with in terms of the way we used the ball in the final two-thirds, and the way we pressed.”
Those passing problems were obvious from an early stage and owed much to poor structure in possession. Dier often dropped into the back line to allow his Spurs full-back colleagues to sprint forward, but Henderson took up peculiar positions, high up the pitch and not in a position to receive short passes. The centre of the pitch was entirely bare, and England struggled to work the ball forward. Weirdly, the man who plugged the gap most frequently was Raheem Sterling, who drifted inside from his right-wing position to get England going in the engine room. He was the star performer in the first half.
Problems with the midfield shape, however, cannot be blamed for the careless mistakes made by John Stones and Gary Cahill. The former remains a wonderful talent and should develop into a world-class performer at Manchester City under Pep Guardiola, and it would be a tremendous shame if he was encouraged to hoof the ball forward more. His trickery in possession is wonderful to watch, and he made an elaborate Cruyff turn by the touchline that had the crowd gasping at his audacity.
But Stones makes too many mistakes. And regardless of a centre-back’s style, whether he’s a passer or a hoofer, an aerial power or a wily interceptor, defenders can’t afford to make this many errors. It’s something England will have to cope with, a price to pay for giving a youngster the experience he needs to develop. But for now, opponents know that Stones will give them chances.
Scotland offered little in the way of creativity here, but were able to press high up the pitch, force turnovers and attack quickly. A better side would have been more clinical. A mix-up between Henderson and Wayne Rooney resulted in Scotland striker Leigh Griffiths launching a quick attack and selfishly choosing to shoot rather than play a simple pass to Robert Snodgrass, who was in a much better position.
That was typical of this game: poor passing in deep positions, the opposition pressing to force a mistake, but then poor attacking play after the turnover.
“We invited their press too readily at times; we have to find the right balance,” said Southgate. “We have to recognise when we’re giving them the opportunity to press high and have some joy. That’s an area where we can do better.”
Cahill was also guilty of some poor possession play, culminating in an incident midway through the first half when he overplayed, was robbed by James Forrest, and then pulled back his opponent to prevent a counterattack, collecting a booking that will rule him out of the next qualification game — although a home meeting with Lithuania is a decent game to miss. Still, Cahill has looked comfortable bringing the ball forward in the three-man defence Chelsea have deployed in recent weeks, and it’s a source of constant frustration that English players suddenly pass the ball so poorly at the international level.
While the quality was disappointing, this was a reasonably entertaining contest with plenty of goal-scoring chances, the vast majority coming from crosses. England’s first goal saw Kyle Walker chipping a cross to Daniel Sturridge, who flicked his header into the far corner expertly, while the second was almost a mirror image: again a Tottenham full-back assisting a Liverpool player’s header, this time Danny Rose and Adam Lallana. The third, meanwhile, was yet another header, a Cahill effort from Rooney’s corner.
“That’s what you get from world-class players,” said Scotland boss Gordon Strachan afterward, who rued his side’s inability to take simpler headed chances.
Scotland’s best chances were extraordinarily similar. Grant Hanley should have equalised when he was totally unmarked from a corner but mistimed his header quite disastrously, while at the start of the second half Scotland left-back Lee Wallace created two fine chances, wasted by Forrest and Snodgrass. Those were the only two routes to goal: set pieces or getting wide and crossing. Before this match, Scotland’s previous three goals this year in World Cup qualifying were, incidentally, also from crosses.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of quality and the simple method of chance creation in a game between two British sides, but it’s not like either were playing route one football. They were attempting to pass the ball, just doing it particularly poorly.
The final significant incident was somehow telling: Walker misplaced a pass miles behind his intended target, Rooney, and straight to Griffiths, which prompted England’s captain to commit an incredibly cynical lunge to halt yet another Scotland counterattack that arose from sloppy England passing.
This could conceivably be the last competitive match in charge for both these managers. Strachan has supposedly been on the brink for a while, and while Southgate remains the favourite for the permanent England job, there remains a sense that he lacks the genuine coaching ability for such a high-profile post, and he still doesn’t appear convinced himself. Neither, however, will want to bow out on the back of a contest that offered some positives for both but was largely defined by poor football.