From one perspective, it’s a job well done for Gareth Southgate and England: three points on the board against very tricky opposition and star man Harry Kane nursed through a combative 45 minutes of football without incident. But while one typically English trait – that of insisting on playing unfit players – didn’t on this occasion end up costing the team points, another one – a curious mix of overconfidence and easily triggered jitters – very nearly did.
But for the first half at least, this England team looked composed at the back, dynamic in midfield and exceptionally dangerous in attack. Scotland’s attempts to replicate their high-pressing game that caused the Czechs so much trouble on Monday suddenly looked desperately naive when implemented against players as talented as these England attackers. It only took moments for this to become clear. As McGregor and McGinn closed down Sancho on the right wing, the Dortmund trickster pirouetted quickly and played a one-two with Barkley, leaving him with a vast gaping expanse to surge into. Up stepped Mulgrew, leaving another chasm for Harry Kane to exploit. Sancho had no problem finding him, and Kane had no problem finding the back of the net.
It was clear, as first Sterling and then Henderson had decent chances to extend England’s lead, that Scotland needed a new gameplan, and quick. Robertson dropped deeper on the left to double up on Sancho with Tierney, and the midfield dropped the high press in favour of more structure. It was bad news for the neutrals: the opening ten minutes had been a breathless parade of chances but now the game settled into something far stodgier. The Wembley crowd grumbled in frustration, but England still looked impressive.
It took until the stroke of half-time for the inevitable second goal to come, and it was beautiful in its simplicity. Ben Chilwell spotted Harry Kane’s run into the box, swung a cross in from deep and the Tottenham striker planted a glorious diving header beyond McGregor’s reach. “It’s coming home!” echoed around the stadium as the teams left the field, and the Scottish fans must have feared that while a heavy defeat here would be hard to take, it would be nothing compared to having to listen to English fans for decades and decades if they did manage to win the tournament. On this form, it would be foolish to rule them out.
Harry Kane did not return to the pitch for the second half, replaced by Marcus Rashford in a straight swap. Gareth Southgate lamented in the post-match press conference how it was a no-win situation for him. Take Kane off and he’s arrogant. Leave Kane on and he’s naive for risking a semi-fit player.
The Scots were unsurprisingly riled at the idea that this match was as good as over, and they started the second half fiercely. Andy Robertson sent Sancho clattering into the advertising hoardings with a powerful shoulder, and, galvanised by the referee’s inaction, crunching tackles followed all over the pitch. It seemed as though tempers – much like the Trafalgar Square fountains that were filled with washing-up liquid by mischievous Scottish fans earlier in the day – were about to bubble over. Yellow cards came out – for Rice, Tierney and Fraser – but there was no escaping the fact that England were rattled. Burke had a decent chance after Andy Robertson, Scourge of Right-Backs, charged down a pass from a dithering Alexander-Arnold, but Pickford was off his line quickly to narrow the angles. From the resulting corner, a Mulgrew header went just over.
And then it came. John McGinn had been almost entirely anonymous in the first half, forced to abandon his attacking instincts in favour of damage limitation. With England reeling, all that changed. His cheeky nutmeg on Jordan Henderson was good enough by itself to make the highlight reels, but he continued forward, unbalancing Declan Rice with the slightest of shoulder feints and dancing through to the edge of the box where, with the minimum of backlift, sent a left-footed shot of vicious fury into the top corner. Jordan Pickford’s acrobatic dive was for the cameras only: this shot was the definition of unstoppable. Away McGinn wheeled to the Scottish fans behind the goal, all ten outfield players a badge-kissing chest-thumping melee of navy-blue euphoria.
But the job was only half done. Much like in their previous game against the Czechs, a Scottish equaliser felt like it had been decreed by the gods. Stones and Maguire in the centre of the English defence were playing like Sunday-league amateurs, resorting to hoofing and hacking the ball away under constant pressure from Robertson, Fraser and Burke. Sterling, Rashford and Sancho were essentially spectators with the ball constantly in the air, and Gareth Southgate’s pleas for calm on the touchline only seemed to ignite further insecurities in his beleaguered defence. On came Abraham for Sancho, cowed since his encounter with Robertson’s shoulder. The Chelsea striker’s ariel presence helped relieve some pressure, but not enough.
What happened in the last moments of this match can be added to the long list of historical footballing injustices, probably somewhere in between Toni Schumacher and Thierry Henry – but in the days of VAR, it is easy to deflect the blame from the offender and onto the technology and officials. What we can say for sure is this: Oliver Burke was clear through on goal after a defence-splitting pass from Ryan Christie, with Trent Alexander-Arnold in his wake. The Liverpool defender timed his intervention well: replays showed that his trip on Burke probably happened marginally outside the box. The referee was perhaps so concerned about deciding between free-kick and penalty that he overlooked the egregious cynicism of the foul, awarding only a yellow card – and then yellows for the outraged protests of Burke, Mulgrew and Tierney. It was the Arsenal left-back’s second booking of the game and off he marched as the England right-back looked on, at least having the decency to look somewhat guilty.
England clung on through the final moments, and with four points secured, look certain to qualify. For the Scots, however, it’s another frustrating result. With victory needed in their final game against a rampant Croatia, they must channel their iron will and fighting spirit once more – and to that they must add some sorely needed cutting edge in attack.