For a long while, the story of this match could be accurately told by the fact the scoring started with, in order, an own-goal, a penalty and then a mis-kick. At least Danny Welbeck’s second goal added a bit more decoration to an evening when England took their time to get going before that 13-minute period in the second half when they scored three times to spare themselves.
Jordan Henderson’s own-goal had certainly left them vulnerable given that England had been so indifferent before going behind. They had kept the crowd waiting until the 55th minute before their first attempt on target and Slovenia should really be anguished about the way a position of strength turned against them once Wayne Rooney had equalised a couple of minutes later from the penalty spot.
That brought Rooney level with Jimmy Greaves on 44 England goals, third in the all-time list behind Gary Lineker on 48 and Sir Bobby Charlton on 49. Charlton had presented Rooney with his 100th cap and,
ultimately, it was another satisfying result for Roy Hodgson’s team. Yet for three-quarters of this match it had been an indifferent display, on a difficult pitch, and that burst of second-half goals felt incongruous to everything that had preceded it. Slovenia were moderate opponents, no matter how much Hodgson tried to talk them up, and England should be capable of taking better care of the ball.
On a more positive note, England’s response to going behind showed the team are not lacking nerve. They had had plenty of the ball before that point but they had just not done an awful amount with it.
Henderson’s faux pas, on a poor evening for the
Liverpool player, sparked the kind of reaction that at least meant Hodgson could be kind about what he had seen. At other times, however, it was startling to see how one-dimensional they were and the lack of movement.
The rutted pitch did not help and Hodgson’s irritation about American football being staged here last Sunday proved well founded, with large parts of the usually pristine turf looking more like the sort of playing surface that would be expected after a hard winter on a lower-league ground. This was certainly the first time England have played with the faded markings of “NFL International Series” running across the pitch and Hodgson is entitled to wonder whether the Football Association, in their pursuit of money, have blurred their priorities.
England, however, would be clutching at some pretty thin straws to cite that as the main reason why they were, to quote Hodgson, a “little bit sterile”. They will be fortunate to get away with it if they start so shabbily against Scotland on Tuesday because the first-half performance was poor in the extreme. Rooney might have been expected to be particularly motivated but he plodded through parts of the game. Welbeck and Adam Lallana played with greater energy but it was not until the second half, when Hodgson abandoned his midfield diamond in favour of a 4-3-3 system, that England started to play with any real penetration.
Hodgson deserves praise for recognising that his initial formation was not functioning well and England certainly had a more rounded appearance when Raheem Sterling moved to the right and Welbeck started coming in from the left. England, despite their various shortcomings, were also entitled to feel it might have been a more straightforward evening if the referee had punished Slovenia’s captain, Bostjan Cesar, in the first half for jutting his elbow into Lallana’s chin.
Henderson’s own-goal came after 57 minutes, trying to clear a free-kick from the left only for the ball to skim off his head and above Joe Hart, and England ought to be grateful for Cesar’s trip on Rooney in virtually their next attack.
Samir Handanovic, Slovenia’s goalkeeper, had not been beaten on the five previous occasions when he has faced penalties. He got his hand to this one, but the shot had enough power to find the corner of the net and England swiftly took control.
The game’s outstanding moment of quality – apart from one right-wing run from Sterling – came from Lallana just before Welbeck made it 2-1. Lallana’s penalty-box turn was exquisite and the deflected cross came back out to Welbeck who scuffed his shot into the ground, wrong-footing the goalkeeper, before the ball bounced in, almost in slow motion.
Perhaps England might have been more dangerous in the first half if Nathaniel Clyne and Kieran Gibbs had been slightly more adventurous when it came to overlapping from the full-back positions. Their reluctance to be too adventurous was probably understandable when Clyne was winning his first cap and Gibbs had been elevated into the team because Leighton Baines was injured. They acquitted themselves ably from a defensive perspective. Yet it is also true that Baines and the now out-of-favour Glen Johnson are more accomplished when it comes to venturing forward, stretching the game and outnumbering the opposition.
The greater problem for England was the poor movement in forward positions and the way it tempted long balls forward. Jack Wilshere was named as the official man-of-the-match but can pass the ball with greater authority.
Henderson waved an apologetic hand more times than he will care to remember and it was not until Welbeck’s second goal that England put together a move of incisive forward passing. Gibbs and Sterling were both involved before Welbeck poked in his fifth goal in the last four internationals and the score was given a slightly flattering sheen !!!