Gareth Southgate was left frustrated by Uefa’s decision not to introduce five substitutes in the Nations League after admitting his side lacked sharpness in the final third during Saturday’s last-gasp win over Iceland.
Raheem Sterling’s converted a 90th-minute penalty to earn England a precious 1-0 win after Southgate’s side missed a host of chances in Reykjavik.
Sterling rolled home from 12 yards after his shot had appeared to hit the arm of Sverrir Ingason, who was then sent off after receiving a second yellow card.
England, who were reduced to ten men when Kyle Walker was dismissed with 20 minutes remaining, survived a late scare after Iceland were immediately awarded a spot-kick of their own, only for Birkir Bjarnason to fire over the bar.
Harry Kane, Declan Rice and Sterling were among the players featuring for the first time this season and Southgate’s side looked disjointed and jaded as they struggled to break down a resolute and disciplined Iceland side.
“I liked the character to respond to the setbacks that we had up until the 93rd minute,” Southgate said. “Our approach to the game was right.
“I had seen in training a different level of sharpness but actually it’s only in match situations that a lack of playing time for many of the players – and it really has been minimal for a lot of them – inevitably starts to show.
“When you’re trying to break down a packed defence that’s a really key aspect to being able to do that.”
Uefa decided against introducing five substitutes for the Nations League despite allowing the rule-change in Under-21 internationals.
The England manager hailed his side’s character but admitted a new-look team, including full debutant Phil Foden and James Ward-Prowse, lack sharpness and said the lack of options from the bench could prove a factor in Tuesday’s Nations League qualifier in Denmark.
Southgate added: “We knew [the quick turnaround] was going to be a huge challenge and that’s part of the reason we thought five subs would be in for this. I didn’t quite understand that.
“They put them in for the Under-21s last night. For us the Nations League was the perfect opportunity to do it and when it was voted through I didn’t think for the league it would be appropriate but I felt [it would be] for the Nations League – especially for every country in this September camp, it was difficult for player fitness. That wasn’t the case so we’re going to have to work our way through that.”
Walker’s first England appearance since June 2019 was marred when he was shown a second yellow card for a lunging challenge on Arnor Traustason and Southgate warned that England could scarcely afford such carelessness in a major tournament.
“The obvious lessons are the red card,” Southgate said. “You can’t make challenges like that. I know Kyle has spoken about it and he’s held his hands up in the dressing room, it makes life so difficult to win games when down to ten. To win with ten is commendable to the attitude of the other players.
“Then to invite the pressure once we scored in the way that we did is another lesson we have to learn.
“We hadn’t really been in trouble up that point barring the odd counter-attack and set play.
“It’s a really basic penalty that we’ve given away, that took a bit of gloss off the win but it was an important win. We knew it’d be a very tough game given all the circumstances around it for both teams and we have to move on now and assess if we can go again on Tuesday.”
Southgate was impressed by Manchester City’s Foden, 20, on his England debut, and also praised Southampton midfielder James Ward-Prowse, who made his first international start on his third cap.
“We know there’s a super player and I though he did very well, I think it was a really difficult came for him to come into,” Southgate said of Foden.
“No space in the midfield, they’re very compact in depth and width. He showed early on with some of the through passes and touches what he’s capable of. Again, just towards the second half he started to tire and we wanted to get another forward on to try a bit more threat. James did a really good job for the team.
“We had to move him around to two or three different positions, ask him to take responsibility. He did that very well. I’m very pleased with both of them.”