Adam Lallana saves Sam Allardyce’s blushes in Slovakia
England huffed and puffed against 10 men but eventually broke opponents down late on
England’s Adam Lallana celebrates scoring the winning goal in their 2018 World Cup qualifying match with Slovakia. Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters
Slovakia 0 England 1
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 looks 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.