World Cup 2018 Qualifiers - Slovakia 0 - 1 England
Adam Lallana’s last-gasp goal gives England victory over 10-man Slovakia
Away team scorers Adam Lallana 90 +4:41
The first goal of Sam Allardyce’s reign came so late – the final attack, five minutes into stoppage time, amid shrieking, plaintive whistles – there was only time for Slovakia to take the kick-off before the referee blew for the end and the England players could savour a match that had strayed dangerously close to being remembered as another disappointment.
It was a tense, dramatic finale to the first game of the new era and having waited until his 27th cap to register his first England goal, Adam Lallana certainly showed a neat sense of timing with the left-foot shot that squirmed through the legs of the Sloviakia goalkeeper, Matus Kozacik, to leave Allardyce pumping his fists on the touchline.
Lallana had been the outstanding performer and that goal saved Allardyce from an old-fashioned tradition every England manager experiences at some point – a media mauling – given Slovakia had to play with 10 men from 12 minutes into the second half. England made hard work of it after Martin Skrtel’s dismissal and ultimately it needed a goalkeeping error to give them their break.
It was, however, a victory they merited and the standard of opposition in Group F is so moderate it does not feel wildly premature to imagine England’s participation in the World Cup is a near-certainty.
Not that England should be too pleased with themselves just yet. They came within seconds of a galling result – “you’ve got to beat 10 men,” a relieved Allardyce acknowledged – and for a long while the match felt like a reminder about why it was unrealistic to expect the team’s shortcomings would automatically be removed just because of the presence of a new manager.
Allardyce’s post-match eulogy for Wayne Rooney seemed like a manager trying to strike up chemistry with his captain rather than an entirely accurate assessment of the player’s performance.
Harry Kane is playing like the ordeal of Euro 2016 is still with him and there were only fleeting glimpses of Raheem Sterling’s improved form. Both were substituted, along with Jordan Henderson, in the second half, with Dele Alli, Theo Walcott and Daniel Sturridge brought on in a part of the match when Slovakia were under sustained pressure.
England pinned back the home side during those moments but they came up against obdurate opponents – “heroic”, to use the word of their coach, Jan Kozak – who gave everything in Skrtel’s absence. Lallana hit a post with another left-foot shot and the irony of Kozacik’s late, decisive mistake was that he had made a string of saves to keep the game goalless.
Walcott was denied a goal because of an offside flag and in the last five minutes Allardyce could be seen waving John Stones forward to leave his position in defence and play as an auxiliary midfielder. Then, finally, the ball dropped to Lallana, eight yards from goal, and the Liverpool player pulled back his left foot in a congested penalty area. The shot was straight at Kozacik but went beneath the goalkeeper, rolling over the line almost in slow motion.
For Allardyce, it was a euphoric moment against the team he had identified as England’s strongest opponent for the qualifying stages. Joe Hart did not have a meaningful save to make all night and there was only one occasion when his goal was seriously threatened, after Danny Rose lost the ball inside his own penalty area. “Slovakia were playing at home but they just never bothered coming out,” Allardyce reflected.
Instead the onus was on England to break them down, with Rooney operating in midfield even though Allardyce had stated beforehand he would use his captain in the same position where he operates for Manchester United. Rooney began the match alongside Henderson in the centre of a 4-1-4-1 formation that had Sterling and Lallana in the wide positions and Eric Dier as the holding player.
This was Rooney’s 116th game, making him the most capped outfield player in England’s history, but it was still fairly startling to hear Allardyce saying he had given him carte blanche to play where he wanted. “This is the most decorated outfield player in England,” the manager explained. “It’s not for me to say where he’s going to play. It’s up to me to ask whether he’s doing well in that position and contributing. If so, great.”
Rooney did occasionally stray forward to operate in the No10 role but he also dropped back to play as a holding midfielder during the final stages. Allardyce seemed delighted with the player’s contribution but it was unorthodox, to say the least. “He did play a lot deeper than I thought he would,” the manager added.
Rooney was prominently involved, though, and even if his passing was erratic sometimes he did at least try to move the ball forwards in those passages of play when England looked too cautious. Slovakia, nonetheless, looked comfortable until Skrtel, already booked for a first-half challenge on Kane, brought down his studs on the same player.
It was a senseless challenge, possibly meriting a red card on its own, and Lallana finally made it count with the last kick of any England player.
Sam Allardyce admits ‘huge relief’ after Adam Lallana gives England victory
• Manager delighted to start with win after ‘nerve-racking’ debut in Slovakia • ‘You have to beat 10 men’ says Allardyce as England win opening qualifier
Sam Allardyce admitted his overriding emotion was one of relief after Adam Lallana’s stoppage-time goal secured victory in the manager’s first match in charge to kickstart England’s World Cup qualification campaign.
Lallana’s 95th-minute finish, scuffed through the goalkeeper Matus Kozacik’s legs, was his first goal in his 27th game and broke Slovakia’s resistance after they had lost their captain, Martin Skrtel, to a red card before the hour mark. “It was pretty nerve-racking at the end because the 10-men scenario meant we had to win,” Allardyce said. “To score that goal was a huge relief for me. You’ve got to beat 10 men and even if we weren’t as clinical as I expected us to be, we richly deserved it based on us dominating the game.
“This is the biggest job I’ve ever had. You know you’re leading the nation forward. Everyone is looking at you. They want you to show the way forward and be successful. It’s that much bigger when the nation’s watching you. I had a whole lot of messages today and it was impossible to try to attempt to reply to all the goodwill messages from across the country. Everyone back home was waiting with bated breath and we scored the winner. Everyone back home is happy. The fans here were happy and the goal came at their end. We dominated the game and got what we deserved.”
The hope is the win will have a galvanising effect on England in the wake of their toils at Euro 2016 in much the same way the 2-0 success in Switzerland two years ago, on the back of a dismal World Cup finals in Brazil, prompted a pristine qualification campaign.
“It was frustrating at times but that’s football,” Rooney said. “We didn’t panic and that’s the main thing. We stuck to our plan, kept our shape and tried to penetrate them in the right areas. Thankfully Adam got us the goal at the end to get us off to a great start.”
Allardyce, who offered the central defender John Stones praise for his performance, employed Rooney in midfield, allowing him the leeway to read the game and determine where best he could exert his influence. “That’s where Sam wanted me to play,” said the Manchester United forward, who became England’s most capped player with his 116th appearance. “We worked on it through the week. A lot of people thought I was going to play higher up the pitch but I think it suits me in this team for the way we play. So I’ve no problems playing there. I thought I contributed to the game.
“I had to tell them to get the ball forward quicker at half-time,” Allardyce said. “If you’re playing against Slovakia and you keep playing it sideways and backwards, it becomes difficult to penetrate. So I was encouraging Lallana, Raheem Sterling, Rooney, Jordan Henderson to get forward and play it off Harry Kane better. We played a very patient game in the end and the substitutes made a difference, fresh legs against 10 men and it finally paid off. But get the ball forward was the shout from me at half-time.
“We hit the post, had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside, had several shots on target and saw their goalkeeper make some saves, then Adam scores his first goal for England in the dying seconds. It can never come better than that. Hopefully we can get better. We have to try to be more effective breaking defences down. Slovakia were playing at home but never bothered coming out. It was about breaking that down.”
Stones, who had not featured for a single minute last summer in France, added: “This was massive. I think we always believed in our ability and there were no nerves or thoughts about the Euros in our minds. It was a bit slow and edgy at the start but we stuck to our gameplan, kept playing our football and a clean sheet, and late win is a good result in the end.”
Sam Allardyce admits legacy of Euro 2016 made England players nervous
• Manager says mood became tense on day of Slovakia World Cup qualifier • But he adds squad he inherited are ‘a happy bunch not a damaged bunch’
Sam Allardyce believes England’s players are emerging from the ordeal of their calamitous defeat by Iceland at Euro 2016, despite the manager admitting he has seen for the first time how the pressure of playing for the national team can hold them back.
Allardyce said he had inherited “a happy bunch not a damaged bunch” but, having won his first match with Adam Lallana’s stoppage-time goal in Slovakia, he also talked about the deterioration in the players’ mood on the morning of the match – a legacy, he said, of what had happened in France in the summer.
“I think they were probably a bit nervous,” Allardyce said. “I saw a little nervous tension. It [Iceland] is bound to be in the back of their mind, isn’t it? They had a holiday, a pre-season, started the season with their clubs and then it comes to the first England game after Iceland and maybe there was nervous tension.
“It was too negative in the first 45 minutes. I think it was possession for possession’s sake rather than trying to break the opposition down. That was maybe sub-conscious, players thinking: ‘I don’t want to be the one who gives that ball away.’ I could see that: ‘What if I make that pass? Oh, I don’t know …’ But we have to be brave.
“I haven’t asked what their biggest fear is because I didn’t want to talk about fear. I wanted to be positive and tell them what the future is. The only thing I mentioned about the past was to learn from it and the only thing I said was don’t feel like that again next time around.”
The Football Association is no longer using Steve Peters, the Liverpool club psychiatrist brought in by Roy Hodgson for England’s past two tournaments, and has turned to the sports management company set up by the Olympic gold-medallist swimmer Adrian Moorhouse.
One of its sports psychologists, Jonathan Zneimer, has already been involved with England teams at every age group from under-21 down and Allardyce recognises the importance of working on the players’ minds after Euro 2016 ended with Greg Dyke, the FA’s then chairman, saying the players “froze” and “were scared”.
“It is different in terms of Steve Peters,” Allardyce said. “This is a company with many facets in their locker. We will use them on a consistent basis to help the players build resilience so they are able to cope with pressure better. Even though they already deal with a lot of pressure, on an international stage it’s a different type of pressure and they are very young. As a squad we are really young and as human beings, when we get criticised, we hurt – we really do.”
The pain of Euro 2016 has by no means subsided, according to Eric Dier, whose assessment of its impact on the squad somewhat contradicted Allardyce’s and was a good deal more downbeat. “There is a long way to go until the scars have been healed but it is a start,” the midfielder said, reflecting on the victory in Slovakia. “All we can do is win against whoever we have in front of us but I think there is a long way to go before we repay everyone for what happened in the Euros. And for ourselves as well because we were the most unhappy of everyone and there is a long way to go until we are happy again.”
Lallana’s first international goal spared England another wave of criticism but Allardyce’s team had struggled until Martin Skrtel’s sending-off and benefited ultimately from a goalkeeping mistake. England did not manage a shot on target until the 64th minute and Harry Kane admitted the team’s lack of confidence in the final third may be a hangover from the tournament in France.
“It could be,” the striker said. “It is difficult sometimes when teams like Slovakia drop off and make it very difficult to play through – you have to be very patient and make sure that ball is spot on every time.”
Allardyce opened himself to scrutiny after the game by declaring he had given Wayne Rooney carte blanche to play where he wanted. The manager went on to say he was surprised Rooney operated in such a deep role – “He’s not to forget we want him to score goals” – but it was clear the manager was willing to give his captain special privileges.
“I am using his experience to its maximum on the field. He has had it at Manchester United, under many different managers, playing down the right, the left, centre-forward, in behind, centre midfield. Mine and Wayne’s relationship, as we grow, will always be to promote him wherever he plays.”
Harry Kane: I know if I keep doing what I am doing, the goals will come
The Tottenham and England striker has begun this season in the same fashion as he did the last, when he still ended up with the Golden Boot
Harry Kane is not one to bristle but deep down he must be weary of the line of questioning each autumn tends to provoke. After the match in Trnava on Sunday he was yet again contemplating the implications of a scoreless performance. “There was a lot of talk last year about me not scoring and I ended up proving a lot of people wrong,” he said. “People will talk this year as well. It’s what they’re doing now. But I am confident in my ability. I know that, if I continue doing what I’m doing, the goals will come.”
They surely will, just as they did when he ended up claiming the Golden Boot having registered 32 goals for club and country for the second season in succession despite that traditional slow start. Yet that particular quirk of his senior career – that he has never scored a league goal before 26 September – is unhelpful at the moment. Kane, perhaps unfairly, came to personify England’s struggles at the European Championship. The haunted look he wore in Nice, as the team panicked and surrendered to Iceland, came to sum up the team’s exit. The Tottenham Hotspur forward had appeared bewildered as his free-kicks flew dismally out of play, perplexed as to how form could desert him so cruelly and completely. It was an ignominy which, in his words, “makes or breaks you as a player”.
Everything since has been an attempt to move on and a goal against Slovakia after three rather disjointed outings for Spurs would have offered evidence of recovery. Yet it was not to be. There was a fluffed connection at the near post from Kyle Walker’s pull-back, his feet all a tangle, and the passing up of a chance to shoot as half-time approached that would normally betray fragile confidence. Maybe he would have enjoyed playing alongside Daniel Sturridge late on but he ended up making way for the substitute. Instead Kane’s most significant contribution was to induce the pair of fouls from Martin Skrtel that led to the Slovakia centre-half’s dismissal.
It all seemed a little too selfless, not that the setup had particularly benefited him. His toils in Trnava could be explained by shortcomings elsewhere. Sam Allardyce’s had been a frank admission that Wayne Rooney has far more experience at this level than the manager and so is almost better placed to read an international game. Yet the captain’s willingness to retreat deeper and deeper as Slovakia sought to stifle left Kane a lonely figure in enemy territory. Too often in the first half his nearest team-mate was Jordan Henderson, who was supposed to be interchanging with Rooney in his forays forward. England’s most prolific goalscorer may just have spotted the team’s lone forward amid the clutter of Slovakia bodies but expecting Kane to make hay from any of his passes was asking too much.
Isolated on the periphery, it took Kane 13 minutes for his first meaningful touch. Kane is not blessed with lightning pace and needs players with energy buzzing around him, dragging opponents out of position to create the space he can exploit. It was no surprise he was bolstered by Dele Alli’s introduction and, if there is subtlety to Rooney’s passing game, then he needs to be instigating the interplay much closer to Kane. The pumped diagonals to Raheem Sterling or Adam Lallana looked glorious when they came off but they slowed down the approach play and allowed the hosts to regroup and smother the only man in the centre.
Kane would have been forgiven a certain exasperation, though he was in no mood to show it. “Wayne is a fantastic player, his passing ability is second to none and he has put some great passes in,” he said. “Not just diagonals but through-balls as well. As a striker, if you have the quality service behind you, you are always going to get chances. We have got the players to put the balls in and create, so all I can do is my best for the team.”
That was a diplomatic praising of his team-mates’ talents which rather overlooked the fact that England, as a group, appear to have forgotten how to play to his strengths.
Victory at least allowed Kane to reflect on the occasion as another step en route to full fitness at a time of the year when rustiness is an issue. The strain under which he is working, having featured in tournaments over the past two summers, with the England Under-21s and then seniors, may explain the sluggish starts. He did not register for Spurs a year ago until game nine and that 4-1 defeat of Manchester City, though he had scored in England’s wins over San Marino and Switzerland earlier in September.
It took the match against Bournemouth’s particularly accommodating defence in late October, which yielded a hat-trick in a 5-1 success, to start the avalanche. “And I still went on to win the Golden Boot, so that proves it was just a matter of time,” he said. “People might talk now or if I don’t score in the next five or six games but it doesn’t bother me. I’m a confident player. I know I will score goals. I feel good. I felt sharp against Slovakia, albeit it was a tough game with the heat. This is only my fourth or fifth game, including pre-season, so I am getting fitter with each run-out. It’s similar to what was happening last year with a shorter pre-season. Anyway, I put in a good shift for the team.”
At least he did not find himself taking corners, as he had for a while at Euro 2016, and Kane has had “a laugh and a joke” with Allardyce when the subject of being asked to adopt those duties against Russia by Roy Hodgson has cropped up. He has learned to chuckle at some aspects of the summer. A few goals would permit him to move on for good.