In the recent era they have barely left a smudge on the consciousness of World Cup finals, but if the penultimate friendly before Russia 2018 told us one thing it’s that Gareth Southgate is at least an England manager who is prepared to attack the greatest tournament in the sport.
This was a first-half performance of ambition that took England into a two-goal half-time lead and saw them stretched rather more after the break once Nigeria had got the measure of a 3-5-2 Southgate formation that set the tempo. Southgate will hope it is the England of the first half he sees in Russia, pressing high, moving the ball quickly and creating chances, but history tells us that one never knows what might happen.
In that first half, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli were released from midfield, with only Eric Dier required to hold. There was width, especially in a fine performance from Tottenham Hotspur’s Kieran Trippier on the right and a striking partnership between Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling. The nagging fear was that it took very little to undo that confident start, with Nigeria’s German coach Gernot Rohr later disclosing that he simply switched at half-time to mirror England’s system.
Before then Gary Cahill, and later Harry Kane, had plundered the goals over a first half in which the Super Eagles conspicuously failed to soar. Following soon after four half-time substitutions, Alex Iwobi’s early second-half goal gave Nigeria the confidence to attack and England were never the same again. Their coach Rohr blamed the distractions of long flights, a presidential reception in Abuja, “bad food” and a rainstorm that prevented them training at Wembley for the slow start.
For Sterling it was an inauspicious end to the week, two first-half chances missed and then a booking for a bad dive in the second half. Southgate conceded afterwards that he felt he was left with no option but to shelve any punishment for the player’s failure to make his own extended deadline for the squad meet on the Tuesday of last week once the storm had broken over his assault rifle tattoo. So instead of being dropped for his lateness, Sterling was in the team, even though the player himself later said to ITV he could not have complained about being left out.
Southgate was pleased with the first half but worried that a similar six-minute period to the one after half-time, when his players failed to react quickly enough to Nigeria’s changed formation, could cost them their place at the World Cup finals. Southgate selected Jordan Pickford in goal and gave the Everton man the full 90 minutes, his praise of the goalkeeper indicating he is the lead candidate to be the No 1 when they begin their World Cup against Tunisia in Volgograd on June 18.
There will be more clues at Elland Road on Thursday when the last friendly against Costa Rica gives Southgate a chance to finesse this team and add those Liverpool players who have been absent so far, but the basic idea is clear. There is a commitment to possession and the attacking qualities in his squad with just one holding midfielder and a premium placed on moving the ball forward fast, which England did in the first half.
There were good runs in behind the Nigeria defence from Lingard and Alli when Kane and Sterling came deep, the first-half team looking like the right men in the right positions. Not since his very first game in charge of the England team, against Malta on Oct 8, 2016, had they been two goals up at halftime and it was hard to remember a time when they had looked more cohesive than the first half.
England finished the first half with 65 per cent of the possession but it was more what they did with it in that period that gave cause for hope. They showed in March against Italy and Holland that they could keep the ball but struggled at times to move it rapidly. This time they moved it forward crisply and quickly and the opposition struggled to contain them.
The first goal was a magnificent header from Cahill, the fifth of his 59-cap career, and a connection so solid that it was past goalkeeper Francis Uzoho in an instant. Moments before then Uzoho had pushed a free-kick from Trippier around the post and it was the Spurs man who delivered the ball onto the head of Cahill. England looked dangerous from set-pieces.
There were boos for Alli from the Nigeria fans for choosing to play for the country of his birth rather than that of his father, whose name he no longer even wears on his shirt. The second goal was a fine piece of plundering, with England turning the possession over in midfield rapidly and moving it from Dier to Kane to Sterling and back to Kane. His shot was classic Kane opportunism, one touch to move it away from his body and a shot quickly struck – albeit by no means unsaveable. Uzoho let it straight under his body.
After the break, England did not have the dominance of the ball they had enjoyed in the first half and the early goal from Iwobi gave Nigeria the confidence they had been lacking. Nigeria had struggled before then to get their better players like Odion Ighalo, once of Watford, and Chelsea’s Victor Moses into the game.
It was Ighalo who held off Kyle Walker on 47 minutes and struck the post with a shot from Iwobi’s pass. The Arsenal man ran onto the rebound, doing well to thread it in past Pickford and the other England players in his way. Southgate was slower to make the changes, eventually bringing on Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Danny Rose and then eventually Marcus Rashford and Danny Welbeck for Kane and Sterling.
It had been a forgettable second half for Sterling who chased one ball into the penalty area and went down with a lamentable dive as Uzoho approached. The England striker was rightly booked by Italian referee Marco Guida. Southgate generously described that as a “tight call” and in the end he will be relieved to have navigated this tricky period involving Sterling without too much long-term damage.
This was a small step towards what Southgate wants from England and it might yet be that there is just too little time to make the progress they need before Russia.
Elsewhere, Germany lost a friendly to Austria so not even the best are unbeatable and England can at least say they are pointing in the right direction.