Centre-Backs Show Resolve to Put England in Pole Position

Getty Images/Catherine Ivill

England 2-1 Poland

  • John Stones and Harry Maguire combined to score a late England winner that made amends for Stones’ first major mistake in a resurgent season.
  • England hung on for victory, and remain the only team yet to drop points in their World Cup qualifying group.

England have come full circle. As heady tournament days under Gareth Southgate approach again, the manager’s squad starts to take shape. And while the difference now is that the options are better and more plentiful, there is a certain nostalgia about the forming group. A number of those venturesome players who took part in the semi-final run in Russia have endured tough career moments since. Back they come now though: Stones, Walker, Lingard and other trusted throwbacks.

Southgate said prior to kick-off that the Euros will take care of themselves. What he meant, of course, was that his priority was earning three crucial points in qualification for Qatar 2022. The inevitable nationwide discussions about formations and players will continue to thrum in the background. But the immediate job was still there to be done. England eventually did it, although they needed an unlikely thumping Harry Maguire volley late on to do so.

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Harry Kane had become the Three Lions’ all-time top scorer of penalties to put England ahead midway through the first half after Raheem Sterling had been felled on a trademark dart to goal. Kane then nearly added another following a lovely move involving Mason Mount and Phil Foden which oozed class. Former Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny parried well; England would saunter into the Wembley tunnel just one up. It remained to be seen if they’d rue missed chances.

On Tuesday, Gareth Southgate and Declan Rice had spoken with EnglandFootball.org about how much of a threat Poland would pose even in the absence of their ruled-out talisman Robert Lewandowski. Without a win over England in over 50 years but with memories of 1973 to spur them on, the Poles would bring quality to the Wembley turf, with or without the man Thomas Müller dubbed ‘LewanGOALski’ in such iconic fashion. Rice and Southgate knew full well.

“We’d be naïve to think that they’re not a top side and they haven’t got quality all over the pitch,” Rice stated wisely. Southgate echoed that sentiment by saying “There’s an opportunity for other players coming in, and if we think of taking our foot off the gas for one minute then we’ll get hurt.”

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When it came, it was precisely that — thinking — which caused England to take their foot off the gas. Utterly resurgent this season at Manchester City, John Stones has for so long now looked to have eradicated those occasional costly errors. But dawdling on the ball with a winning England idling, the indecision crept back in and so did Poland’s high press.

Brighton & Hove Albion’s Jakub Moder nicked the ball and via a one-two with one of the men Rice singled out as a threat, Arkadiusz Milik, Poland had empathically equalised. Moder lashed the ball past Pope, whose poor pass was partly to blame for the goal in truth. Pope and Stones at fault; Poland back level at 1-1. England so dominant but now with nothing left to show for it; were there to be shades of ’73 about this latest meeting with Poland?

With Rice and Kalvin Phillips screening the defence about as well as they have done yet in England shirts, and with Ben Chilwell bombing up and down the wing amid new pressure for his place from Luke Shaw, England sought to reassert themselves as the side controlling this match.

This will probably have been England’s final international behind closed doors for quite some time. And the Three Lions conjured up the perfect way to wave farewell to artificial, hollow fan-less football. Harry Maguire scored the kind of late winning-goal that supporters long to see live. Not possible this time, but at least an England victory was.

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Stones leapt highest to knock the ball down to his centre-back partner from a corner. Maguire promptly clattered the ball in, celebrated with Kane and others, before running over to his friend and colleague Stones, thanking him for the assist and congratulating him for righting the wrongs of half an hour earlier. If England weren’t going to secure yet another clean-sheet, they at least wanted to show they could overcome adversity — the sort of adversity they might find themselves having to negotiate back here at Wembley this summer.

Manchester United captain Maguire was understandably delighted for himself, the team, and his partner John Stones after the match. He considers Stones the best defender he’s ever played with. He told EnglandFootball.org that “Mistakes can happen; they happen in football and when they happen when you play for England, you get scrutinised more than ever. Great reaction from John — [he had a] big part to play in the winning goal [with] the assist.” Whether Southgate plays a three or a four in defence from now on, Maguire was showing what being a unit means. Whether they start alongside each other at the Euros or not, he and Stones are a unit. This was the night which offered material evidence of that fact.

“We’re playing to play at the World Cup — the biggest competition in the world,” said Maguire, who has been described as a real student of the game. “Everything is not going to be plain sailing; it’s not going to be easy. We’re not going to be able to control 90 minutes of every game that we play.”

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Southgate will be the first to admit that it certainly wasn’t all plain sailing, and that control of this match did falter at times. But it’s how you come through these moments that counts. Indeed, it’s whether you come through them. For almost all of stoppage time, Southgate’s two late substitutes Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Jesse Lingard were holding the ball in the corner to waste Poland’s precious time. With all of the talk at the moment revolving around a swelling of talent and promise in the English game, it can’t be a bad thing that in competitive victory over Poland, England showed they can also be steely and dogged.

The football nerds will remember it as the day, pre-tournament, that England won playing 4-3-3 and held on by adopting 3-4-3. Gareth Southgate and the PR-savvy England party won’t. They’ll say it’s nothing more than three points won in a crunch qualifier. What they won’t call it is the final audition before the Euros squad is announced. Only time will tell who wins that money-can’t-buy prize.

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