Gareth Southgate must solve England’s 1-0 conundrum if they are to win the World Cup
A great result at Stadion Narodowy became merely a good one when Damian Szymanski rose to head home Robert Lewandowski’s cross in stoppage-time, cancelling out Harry Kane’s superb strike and sending 56,212 raucous Poland fans home happy.
The 1-1 draw was no less than the hosts deserved for a spirited performance in what was comfortably England’s toughest test of their previously faultless qualifying campaign.
Southgate and his players were in some respects the makers of their own downfall, however, after inviting late pressure by dropping too deep in the final 10 minutes, ceding the initiative.
And the manager made the peculiar decision to ignore his bench, so for the first time since defeat by Germany in the semi-final of Euro ’96, a match Southgate played in, England did not make a single substitution.
It was not easy to fathom Southgate’s thinking given the quality he had in reserve and the way his players tired as Poland searched for a response to Kane’s superb dipping strike in the 72nd minute — his 41st England goal.
A possible answer is that Southgate was paralysed by the familiar 1-0 conundrum, finding himself caught in two minds about whether England should protect their lead or go for the jugular.
In the end, they managed neither and Southgate’s failure to act felt costly. Jordan Henderson, Trent Alexander-Arnold or Kieran Trippier would have made England more solid down their right flank, from where Poland eventually scored, while Bukayo Saka might have posed the hosts fresh problems.
Asked if he considered making changes, Southgate said: “No, because we were in total control of the game. You can put players into the game who’ve had to sit in the stand and it’s not so easy to come on in those latter stages.
“There were a couple of moments we looked at it and said, ‘No, we’re doing well, no problem’.”
Poland’s late equaliser is also part of a wider trend of Southgate’s England struggling when 1-0 up in big matches, notably of course in the final of the European Championship and the semi-final of the 2018 World Cup.
In both of those painful defeats, they also looked unsure of how best to manage the match after taking early leads. It is an area Southgate will need to work on if England are to win the World Cup next year.
That said, the manager can still reflect on a hugely positive international break in which his squad showed no hangover from the Euros.
Last night’s draw, which still leaves them four points clear at the top of Group I with four qualifiers remaining, may even come to a feel like a positive, ensuring complacency does not creep in following five straight wins. Southgate will be particularly pleased with how his side coped in two ferocious atmospheres in Budapest and here, suggesting this squad is continuing to mature.
The widespread applause for the English national anthem was negated by loud boos and whistles when England took the knee, and the stadium was united in disapproval whenever the visitors had possession.
Regardless, England looked to have landed the knockout blow when Kane scored brilliantly from over 30 yards. It took the Tottenham striker ahead of Michael Owen as England’s outright fifth highest scorer in history and it is surely only a matter of time before he surpasses Wayne Rooney’s 53 goals.
It looked as though Kane had won his individual head-to-head with Lewandowski but the 33-year-old showed his pedigree by standing up a superb cross for Szymanski, leaving Southgate with familiar questions to answer.