Squint a little and there was something weirdly retro about England’s victory in Iceland on Saturday night. This was a painful occasion for Gareth Southgate’s under-conditioned team, a game where the neat little touches didn’t stick, where the bounce was off, the grass unkind, the ball filled with helium, where England’s midfield seemed, somehow, to be always facing the wrong way.
As the ball was shuttled cautiously across those deep blue defensive lines, this felt a bit like watching old, analogue, square-screened England. We shall remember them (if you really insist), that version of Albion who lived in fear of foreign fields, unkind referees, the ball itself.
In the grand tradition England even found a hero, a star player with just enough juice in the tank to drag this discordant ensemble across the line.
Raheem Sterling was England’s best player against Iceland. A low bar perhaps. But on an off-day for everyone involved Sterling seemed to have decided early on that his own off-day was still going to be enough.
It was an effort of sporting will as much as anything else. Sterling didn’t look particularly free in his movements, or particularly in sync after playing just 90 minutes in the last month of this strange, sallow, plague-shadowed summer. But he kept on doing things, seeking the ball, trying to play. He touched the ball 105 times, took three shots at goal, completed nine dribbles, made four crosses.
By sheer weight of numbers his influence came to tell. It was Sterling’s excellent deep cross to the back post that made Harry Kane’s (incorrectly) disallowed first-half goal. His chest control and shot produced England’s late penalty. His alarmingly central penalty kick then won the game (although look at Sterling’s eyes and it’s clear he knew that Hannes Thor Halldórsson had vacated the middle of his goal).
Probably it was even Sterling’s expertly-crossed fingers of destiny that led to Birkir Bjarnason’s appalling missed penalty kick two minutes into stoppage time, a kind of dad-at-the-rec attempt to clang the ball into the top-most part of the top corner that sent the ball veering off into the empty plastic seats.
Look closely and in among the grimaces and shouts of relief Sterling was the only England player smiling (quite broadly), as he ran back into the box to clap Jordan Pickford on the back.
Although by that stage, true to the lone-England-hero-trope, you half-expected him to be pounding his three lions badge, head encased in a gleaming conical bandage, shirt glistening with his own blood; as for one night only Sterling occupied the familiar last-ditch rescue role, a lineage that stretches back through Bryan Robson, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham and various other day-saving magic-bullet players down the decades.
To complete the sense of a heritage performance in Reykjavik, England also played the game out with an obvious blind spot on show. And with a manager on the touchline who, for all his successes, does seem to have at least one significant tactical achilles heel in the straitjacketed caution of England’s midfield. Southgate’s preference for a defence-minded double pivot over players whose chief skill is to use the ball was evident again here, the other side of that late rescue job.
Sterling first, though. Football loves its schmaltzy, cyclical storylines.
If we really are going to do catharsis, silencing the knockers, the Boethian Wheel Of Fortuna, it is worth remembering Sterling also had the worst possible time against Iceland four years ago. Barracked by a section of his own fans, subbed off after an hour, then assailed with faux outrage in the newspapers the next day over the “blinging” house and kitschy kitchen sink he’d bought for his mother to live in.
Hysteria aside, it is the case that Sterling wasn’t an effective England player in those early days. His form began to bloom under Southgate, with the last two years a period of genuine ignition. Sterling scored twice in his first 45 England games, but 11 now in his last 12. He seems to have reached a comfortable peak in his game, to spend a lot of time doing the things he knows he’s very good at, never dwelling on his weaknesses or the occasional ragged moments; and who is above all a complete team player, relentlessly focused on bringing his influence to bear.
It has been a process to reach this point. Sterling has always been less technically adept than, say, Jadon Sancho: he has fewer tricks, a less startling range of dribbling skills, a less convincing connection with the ball. But he has become something else, an exceptionally clever wide midfielder, utterly fearless in his movements, draining to mark and play against, a thrilling spectacle to watch in the flesh simply for the intelligence of his movements on the flank. It was this ability to find space that eventually told in Reykjavik.
England face a downhill sprint from here. The next two and a half years could provide three major tournament finals in quick succession. Sterling will be key to Southgate’s plans in that period, although hopefully not in the role of last-ditch needs-must saviour.
The players may have been undercooked in Iceland. But there was something else too, a knot in the middle of this team that still hasn’t been unravelled. This is, of course, the central midfield: all football managers are cautious at heart. Southgate’s own area of mild tactical neuroses is here, in his preference for a deep defensive shield, or at least two central midfielders whose instinct is to hold the space.
Under this system England’s attack has often thrived against weaker opponents. But they have also struggled against teams who sit deep, or against more technically adept midfielders with the skills to overwhelm England’s hard-running artisans.
Belgium are the No 1 team in the world right now. The Nations League game at Wembley next month isn’t the perfect stage to fight back against this tendency – that was Iceland on Saturday night, where Jack Grealish and Mason Mount remained on the bench and Phil Foden was moored to his left-sided detail.
England will only improve as fitness returns and the current jet-lagged summer recedes. This team has earned the right to grind out an unlovely win. But history suggests success comes from ironing out those points of resistance. Sterling, Kane, Sancho, Greenwood and Rashford is an attack that deserves a midfield of similar ambition.