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    Gareth Southgate will feel England still have plenty of work to do despite Raheem Sterling’s late penalty as Three Lions struggled to break Iceland down… while debutant Phil Foden looked overwhelmed

    • England beat Iceland 1-0 on Saturday courtesy of a late Raheem Sterling penalty 
    • Birkir Bjarnason then missed from the spot for Iceland in the closing stages 
    • Gareth Southgate’s side had initially found it difficult to break Iceland down 
    • Southgate will know that there’s much more work to do if England are to succeed

    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

    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

    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

    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, almost five years since his first on 69 minutes. Yet before England could revert to their new shape, with two up front, the scheming was undone. 

    Walker, who had done well on his first international game for 14 months, had picked up a first half booking for felling Gudmundsson. Now, on 69 minutes, he clattered into Arnor Ingvi Traustason, late and reckless, to earn a second yellow.

    Now we would get to see Trent Alexander Arnold, who will presumably also play on Wednesday. And a debut for Mason Greenwood, so the best of the young ones were on display. But the frustrations remained the familiar.

    The eerie silenced accompanying anthems without singing signalled England’s first game for nine months was underway yet, after the long wait, the first half was undistinguished. 

    James Ward-Prowse was given an opportunity but found it difficult to make an impact

    James Ward-Prowse was given an opportunity but found it difficult to make an impact

    On a crisp autumnal day, when bright Rejkjavik sunshine belied the changing seasons, as the last vestiges of summer was ushered away by a fresh northerly front, England looked sluggish. ‘Move it quickly,’ barked Kyle Walker frequently. Gareth Southgate paced his technical area, cerebral and mainly silent, the quiet man surveying his team.

    The hope was England would out clear blue North Atlantic water between the class of 2016 and this new generation, bolstered by Foden, finally given his debut, and the likes of Sancho, an England regular these days.

    Southgate has held back with Foden, fearful of overexposing a young man to unreasonable expectations. But in the digital age, this is a low-key as England debuts come. Mount Esja overlooked proceeding somewhat majestically in the background but that aside, Foden and co cut lonely figures at Laugardalsvollur Stadium. A handful of locals gathered at the far end of the stadium, where a wire fence was the only barrier to a clear view across the bend of the athletics track.

    Only four England starters – Kane, Sterling, Dier and Walker – might have been haunted by the ghosts of Nice; likewise, for Iceland, with so many key players out, only three of their team started in the game which was zenith of Icelandic football and nadir of the English game.

    With a population of 364.000, roughly the size of Coventry, they could ill afford the absence of Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson and Burnley’s Johan Berg Gudmundsson, absent because of the ‘club issues.’ In short, Premier League muscles reaches well beyond England these days. In addition, captain Aron Gunnarsson, was unable to travel from Qatar.

    Despite the best of efforts of the likes of Jadon Sancho, England were lacking in creativity

    Despite the best of efforts of the likes of Jadon Sancho, England were lacking in creativity

    Iceland – as English as it comes with their solid blocks of 4-4-2 – were squeezing England in midfield, happy to allow the ball out to the wings where Sancho and Sterling did their best to pick their way through the forest of players confronting them. 

    And if Trippier and Walker offered support from full backs, Sverrir Ingason and and Kari Arnason looked happy to deal with crosses and head balls aways all afternoon.

    In the packed central areas, the sheer numbers of bodies made it hard to prise a way through. Foden and Ward-Prowse looked slightly overwhelmed. 

    The guile of the Manchester City player is exactly what is called for in situations like this. But it’s hard to be nuanced when surround by a gang of 6’1” Vikings. Iceland had England where they wanted them, trapped in a plan of coach Erik Hamren’s making.

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