Three thoughts on England’s 1-0 win vs. Slovakia in World Cup qualifying.
1. Lallana wins it for England
Nobody predicted it could be pretty when Sam Allardyce was appointed England manager. In Trnava, a failure to break down a Slovakia side reduced to 10 men in the 57th minute when Martin Skrtel was dismissed looked set to be another reminder of the exasperating reality England so often bring their followers.
But then came Adam Lallana’s 95th-minute winner, struck as a goalless draw loomed. Even though Allardyce had said before the game that a draw was just fine by him, it would have registered as a disappointment. Before Lallana, having received the ball on the edge of the six-yard area, coolly sidestepped and slotted beyond Matus Kozacik, England had been wasteful.
There seemed little sign of a revolution when Allardyce’s team lined up in pretty much the same 4-3-3 formation of Roy Hodgson’s final match in charge, that embarrassing round-of-16 Euro 2016 defeat to Iceland. The new manager’s team also played at the type of stately, ponderous pace that has so irked fans through the years. And Wayne Rooney was in midfield again.
An obvious alteration came in the time defenders took on the ball. John Stones was clearly under instructions to curb his instinct to dribble out of defence. It also appeared Allardyce had told his players to get the ball into the opposition box as quickly as possible. Rooney was especially keen to pump it forward, though his long, chipped passes posed little threat to a Slovakian defence that sat deep.
Quick passing moves made the home team more vulnerable and Harry Kane failed to connect with a 21st-minute chance created for him by excellent combination play from Lallana and Kyle Walker.
The first half’s best opportunity came for the hosts when Danny Rose, acting against his manager’s express instructions, dallied in his own box before Michal Duris fired wide with England goalkeeper Joe Hart left unprotected. When Raheem Sterling fired wide after a similar mixup in Slovakia’s defence a minute later, a match looked in danger of breaking out.
Yet a rerun of the teams’ Euro 2016 0-0 draw was eventually reenacted with England attacking and Slovakia defending. That pattern became ingrained once Skrtel was sent off for a second bookable offence: A stamp on Kane. Slovakia’s captain might have been dismissed before that, having given a reckless, brutish performance against the country where he plied his trade during eight years at Liverpool.
Rooney drifted a 71st-minute free-kick over the bar after a foul on Dele Alli, who added much-needed zip after coming on as a substitute for the anonymous Jordan Henderson. Lallana, lively all evening, then cracked the post four minutes later as England stepped up their efforts.
Another replacement, Theo Walcott, had the ball in the net but was flagged offside. It seemed the breakthrough would never come, but then Lallana’s composure won the day and put a broad smile on Allardyce’s face.
2. Hart has little to do, Rooney lethargic
There was little question about Joe Hart donning the goalkeepers’ gloves for England. Now he is on loan at Torino, there may come a time when Fraser Forster and Jack Butland show enough in the Premier League to threaten his place, but both the Southampton and Stoke stoppers were absent through injury.
It was an early opportunity for Hart to put his Euro 2016 nightmare behind him, but there were signs of nerves in his first piece of action. In the seventh minute, he horribly shanked a back pass, as if to confirm the Pep Guardiola notion that he will never make a sweeper-keeper. Thereafter, Hart had little to do, and a clean sheet will help his battered self-confidence.
Hart was lucky that his errant kick went straight to Rooney, whose retention of the captain’s armband was greeted with a shrug from most England fans. Over the years, he has been prolific in qualification, scoring 30 of his 53 England goals in such games but, here, he attempted to be a playmaker. And without success.
On the occasion Rooney surpassed David Beckham as his country’s most-capped outfield player on 116, there were flashes of quality, with one pearling pass to Rose almost creating a goal before half-time.
However, Rooney the midfield stroller who is too often wasteful in possession while slowing the play, no longer looks like he should be an automatic selection.
3. Kane struggles again
Kane’s first-half, fresh-air shot was a stark reminder of his struggles in France and also a reflection of his slow, goalless start to Tottenham’s season.
The Tottenham striker was helped little by being otherwise isolated by the slow play of his teammates and the lack of anyone to play off him — Rooney was often 50 yards behind him and Lallana and Sterling played on the flanks — but there was a definite sluggishness to Kane’s play.
At his best, he is a player, who makes things happen singlehandedly, an almost one-man attack. But this was nothing like the all-action striker who can blow the rafters off White Hart Lane.
Many an Englishman has struggled with Three Lions on their shirt — the likes of John Barnes, Robbie Fowler and Andy Cole come to mind — and the past few months have made Kane look the latest to be afflicted. He left the field in the 82nd minute, replaced by Daniel Sturridge.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.