A late Raheem Sterling penalty handed England all three points in their 2020/21 Uefa Nations League opener against Iceland.
Gareth Southgate’s men dominated the showdown in Reykjavík but were unable to breach Erik Hamrén’s side until the final moments of the contest.
Sverrir Ingi Ingason was the unfortunate Icelandic player to handle the ball inside the penalty area, thus giving the Three Lions an opportunity to escape another ignominious affair with their northern European rivals, and Sterling obliged to register his 13th international goal.
Iceland, though, should have stunningly equalised from the spot themselves moments later but Bresica midfielder (and former Aston Villa man) Birkir Bjarnason couldn’t keep his cool and saw his effort fly over Jordan Pickford’s goal.
With the dust beginning to settle, here are five things we learned from this encounter…
1. Foden is here
Pep Guardiola raised a few eyebrows when declaring Phil Foden, and not Lionel Messi, as “the most talented player” he’s ever coached. Now, of course, this could have been the Manchester City manager dabbling in good old fashioned man-management to boost the confidence of the English youngster, who before last season had yet to cement a regular starting berth at his boyhood club. More regular playing time coupled with David Silva’s departure this summer presents a real opportunity for him to truly start to fulfil his potential.
Looking for the breakthrough on his #ThreeLions debut.
— England (@England) September 5, 2020
Southgate is also singing from the same hymn sheet as Guardiola when offering up praise for the U17 World Cup winner, suggesting Foden could play in a multitude of attacking roles. Against Iceland, making his international debut, he lined up alongside James Ward-Prowse with both operating behind Harry Kane and encouraged to support England’s captain.
Understandably given the enormity of this occasion and what it means to him in his personal development you can forgive Foden for having first=game jitters. He ultimately completed 44 passes and pulled off two take-ons. It took a while to get going and stamp his authority, but when he did (regularly making those late runs into the box) you began to understand the hype.
2. VAR, Where Art Thou?
England’s last meeting with Iceland, their only competitive showdown before today, saw Roy Hodgson’s side take an early lead through Wayne Rooney from the spot after Raheem Sterling was brought down. His fourth-minute opener could have been matched by Kane, who featured in that ill-fated loss in France, after Tottenham’s leading marksman put the ball into the net with five minutes on the clock. It was deemed to be offside, though on closer inspection was a harsh call.
— England (@England) September 5, 2020
That decision would have likely been overturned if the video assistant referee (VAR) was in use. Yet another moment where those skeptical of technology should be given pause for thought. It also robbed Kane from making a piece of national team history. Going into this match, the Londoner had found the net in his last six international appearances (10 goals). Another strike would have seen him become only the third player to score in seven consecutive games for England after George Camsell (1929-36) and Steve Bloomer (1895-99) and the first of the post-war era.
3. A new role for Trippier
The shortage of left-backs at Southgate’s disposal meant he was always going to get creative here. Rather than convert a wide forward, thus playing him as a wing-back, Atlético Madrid’s right-back Kieran Trippier (making his 20th international appearance) was given the nod. Though an unfamiliar role, it’s not exactly alien territory, as the former Manchester City academy graduate was previously fielded there by Mauricio Pochettino during his Tottenham days.
OK, it was one game, and Spurs eked out a 1-0 win at Wembley against Barnsley in the EFL Cup. Curiously though, Dele Alli’s winning goal was created by Trippier, who again enjoyed possession against modest opposition this afternoon. He’d touch the ball 126 times and created three chances (more than any player that started) while completing 93% of his passes (91/98). On a showing like today, he will certainly be an option against sides the Three Lions expect to dominate. Trippier wasn’t the second coming of Paolo Maldini but had more than enough to be a presence at both ends of the pitch.
4. A big miss
This game had more than just three points on the line. For those in a white jersey, an opportunity to banish the ignominious memory of being dumped out of Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland, who themselves sought another major victory over the former world champions. Back in France, four summers ago, their hero was former Ajax marksman Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, who headed into this game as the most prolific scorer in Erik Hamrén’s squad with 26 goals across 57 international outings.
— UEFA Nations League (@EURO2020) September 5, 2020
However, during the warm-up he picked up an injury, forcing Hamrén into making an 11th-hour change. In came AZ striker Albert Guðmundsson, who is the descendant of Iceland’s first professional footballer, his namesake Albert Guðmundsson, but he seldom threatened Jordan Pickford’s goal. To be fair, neither did any of his teammates. The hosts could only muster one shot on goal from open play, by Arnór Ingvi Traustason, but that effort flew wide of the England goal.
5. Six-year duck broken and late drama
Iceland’s hopes of sharing the spoils was boosted after Kyle Walker received a second yellow card with 20 minutes remaining. They still needed to graft and stay disciplined tactically as England remained the likeliest of the two teams to score, even though Hamrén stood on the cusp of becoming the first manager to beat the Three Lions with two different national sides.
🟥 – It's a red card for #MCFC's Kyle Walker and England are down to 🔟!
Can Iceland pull off a shock result with the extra-man? 🇮🇸
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) September 5, 2020
Walker’s moment of madness was a rare sight under Southgate’s leadership, as their last sending off came against Ecuador in June 2014 when his Man City teammate Raheem Sterling collected a straight red in the 79th minute. Overall this was England’s 16th red — shared between 14 different players — since introducing this system of punishment. And it was the aforementioned Sterling that decided this contest after Sverrir Ingason gave away a very late penalty for handling the ball, his second yellow of the game.
But the drama continued when Iceland got their own spot-kick seconds later, only for Bjarnason to fluff his lines.