Football Features

England edge Lewandowski-less Poland to maintain perfect start to World Cup qualifiers

By Ben Green

Published: 22:04, 31 March 2021

England have maintained their flawless start to the Road to Qatar, seeing off Poland 2-1 at Wembley.

It was a thoroughly dominant display by Gareth Southgate’s men, who enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, but were made the sweat in the end as Jakub Moder capitalised on John Stones’ error to cancel out Harry Kane’s opening, before Harry Maguire fired England in front late on.

The Three Lions hogged the ball but lacked an attacking thrust at times to really make count their possession-heavy exploits. Concerns in that department for Southgate, but three points the consolidate their standing in Group I. What did we learn from the capital?

1. Kane at the double

The gauntlet was thrown down by Paulo Sousa from minute one, challenging England’s eager attack the break down their exceptionally low block and heavily-congested box, but The Three Lions were more than happy to oblige and soon set to work pressing and probing, looking for gaps in an obdurate backline.

And it wouldn’t take long before the breakthrough came; Sterling slaloming his way into the box and ghosting past Poland’s desperate defence, tempting Michal Helik into a clumsy challenge and drawing the foul, with the experienced Bjorn Kuipers quick to blow his whistle, gifting Kane an opportunity to tuck home from the spot.

The Tottenham marksman was never in doubt, stepping up with a confident aura, executing his trademark shimmy before clinically dispatching past former Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny (an added bonus, no doubt), bringing his penalty tally in an England shirt up to double digits, the first player to do so.

His finish from 12 yards means Kane has now overtaken Frank Lampard (nine) as the leading scorer in that department, while his overall haul has been bumped up to 34, now less than 20 finishes away from matching Wayne Rooney (54) as the all-time record goalscorer for the nation, another step towards history.

2. Rice the all-action midfielder England have been crying out for

For West Ham fans it’s a common misconception among ‘neutrals’ that Declan Rice has improved his game. Those that watch the burgeoning midfield talent on a regular basis will know that he has not improved per se, but rather, the team around him has improved. Rice has, in fact, always been this good.

During his emergence on the scene at the London Stadium, Rice was forced to hone his craft in very turbulent waters, with managerial changes ten a penny in E20. But, the one constant that has followed West Ham throughout the chaos of Slaven Bilic and Manuel Pellegrini’s tenures has been Rice.

His performance against Poland was Rice in microcosm over these past few years, intercepting with an erudite understanding of space, procuring the ball with an irrepressible desire and making timely charges forward when openings presented themselves. It’s the type of all-action tenacity that England have been crying out for.

Now that David Moyes has constructed a more balanced and stable West Ham side, the performances of Rice have been illuminated, but the stripling enforcer is simply continuing the work he has been doing since his arrival, and England are now starting to see just what all the hype in east London is about.

3. Old habits die hard for Stones as Pope’s clean-sheet record ends

The re-emergence of John Stones at Manchester City has been one of the comeback stories of the campaign, with the 26-year-old elbowing his way to the front of the centre-back pecking order, and forming a quite brilliant partnership with Ruben Dias. City’s dominance this term can be heavily attributed to that centre-half pairing.

Such has been the form of Stones that England have wasted little time in recalling him to the international fold and he has been impressive this World Cup qualifying campaign, but his error against Poland this evening was an example of why he initially fell out of favour under Pep Guardiola last season.

The momentary lapse in concentration was duly punished and England went from looking in complete control to unsure of themselves. Sousa’s side scarcely troubled the England backline, offering very little going forward without the world-class threat of Lewandowski, but they took their chance when it came.

Jakub Moder’s finish was well executed and left Nick Pope rooted to the spot, which now means the Burnley goalkeeper has finally been breached in an England shirt, having gone his opening  six appearances without conceding. A seventh successive shutout was always a tall order to fulfil.

As for Stones, his late assist to tee up Maguire certainly made amends, but the error remains a concerning footnote in the aftermath of this contest.

4. Poland struggle to shake off ‘one-man team’ status

Lewandowski’s absence dominated to the pre-match chatter, with questions as to how Poland would cope without their key man up top. Sousa’s game plan was clear, sit back and absorb pressure, stifling the attacking enterprise of England; but the tactical approach was largely to the detriment of their own attack.

Poland scored on the night, but the finish was not borne out by their own creative flourish; instead by England hitting the self-destruct button. The visiting Poles were, by and large, lacklustre going forward, failing to register a single shot in the first half, while lacking the cutting edge to really trouble Pope.

Sousa deserves credit as he knew fighting fire with fire without Lewandowski would have likely backfired. Instead, he frustrated England, forcing Southgate’s men to find alternative avenues past Szczesny, chiefly deadball scenarios, as they netted from the spot and a from a corner.

As was expected in the build up to this contest, Bialo-czerwoni finished the game with little to write home about in terms of their attacking output, registering just one shot on Pope’s goal, which was Moder’s finish, while struggling to really assert themselves on the ball, ending the game with just 35% possession.

 5. Southgate’s double-pivot proved overkill on the night

In practice the double-pivot of Rice and Kalvin Phillips makes complete sense: providing the side a midfield buffer that will screen the backline, mop up loose balls, and offer the requisite protection so England’s more creative attacking stars can focus on their game with more assurance.

However, the pitfall to such an approach limits the attacking options England have going forward, and in a contest where Poland were largely happy to sit back and congest the box, it left Kane, Foden and Co with a thankless task of trying to penetrate in exceptionally tight spaces.

Southgate may have been wise to recognise England’s attacking difficulties in trying to break down what was, at times, a back eight, with the midfield trident dropping off and wing-backs Maciej Rybus and Bartosz Bereszynski tucking ever deeper.

And yet, Southgate failed to make a substitution until Maguire breached the net in the closing stages, bringing on the cavalry when the call was needed 10 minutes prior. That lack of inactivity will be a concern for England fans. But, on the whole, it was a dominant display, just without the cutting edge going forward.