On a bright but cold Reykjavik evening, which spoke of long winter months ahead, England’s return to international football after almost ten months away was a profoundly underwhelming affair rescued by Raheem Sterling’s late penalty and Birkir Bjarnason then spurning Iceland’s own injury time spot kick.
Since November, Gareth Southgate has sat on his hands and reflected on what might have been had Euro 2020 have taken place and had there been no global pandemic.
On reflection he may decide that there was always plenty more work to do. And that on the basis of this display, there progress made since England were humiliated by Iceland in 2016, may have been overstated.
England manager Gareth Southgate will have concerns despite the victory against Iceland
Raheem Sterling scored from the penalty spot in a dramatic late ending in Reykjavik
England were ponderous and uninspired, perhaps predictably given the disruption of the season, until on 90 minutes a Trent Alexander-Arnold corner resulted in a Sterling strike.
Sverrir Ingason threw himself at the ball which struck his elbow. The penalty was awarded, Sterling scored and England seemed safe. Yet incredibly, almost direct from kick off, Joe Gomez contrived to pull back Albert Gudmundsson in the box. Up stepped Bjarnsson, heroics pending, but he shot high over the bar towards Mount Esja in the distance.
England simply could not move the ball quickly enough to pull the Icelandic defensive machine out of its preordained shape. Possession stats of 88 per cent count for little when you are constantly being forced sideways one way and then the other. England needed incision. Instead, there was indecision.
Jon Dadi Bodvarsson worked extremely hard as Iceland made matters difficult for England
Such was the industry of the Icelandic front two, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and Albert Gundmundsson, that 4-4-2 often became 4-6. And even a much more precise and technical group of England players still struggle when smothered like this. The Millennials emerging from academies aren’t so different to England’s Generation X.
On the rare occasions when they could shift the metronomic Icelandic players from their allotted positions, finishing leg them down: Rice scuffed a shot in the first half and then struck wastefully over when Kane played him in early in the second. Ward-Prowse mistimed a run towards the end of the second half when Trippier played him in and failed to get a shot away as space, for once, beckoned.
Southgate is a manager whose best qualities are his patience and calmness. Yet the stalemate begged a change and Foden was the fall guy. Patted on the back by his manager as he came off, it was nonetheless a frustrating afternoon.
He had been neat in tight spaces. And no-one doubts that he passes the ball beautifully. But this was a game in which he could only shine in moments.
Phil Foden made his England debut but he was only able to shine intermittently v Iceland
Danny Ings – no longer a one-cap wonder – came on to earn a second cap,