England stave off Nigeria as Raheem Sterling's mixed day adds to eventful week
LONDON -- Three thoughts from Wembley on England's 2-1 win over Nigeria in a pre-World Cup international friendly.
1. England hold off Nigeria, questions remain
England's pretournament friendlies can often present false hope for when things really matter. A couple of years ago Roy Hodgson's men came from 2-0 down to brilliantly beat Germany 3-2 in Berlin, and it was tempting to think about what success they could achieve in France. A couple of months later, they were humiliated by Iceland and slunk home, all hope lost.
Thus, you probably shouldn't read too much into their 2-1 victory over Nigeria at Wembley. But for the first half and flashes of the second, you could easily convince yourself that there was enough potential in Gareth Southgate's team to make a real impact in Russia.
Goals from Gary Cahill and Harry Kane -- keeping up his record of scoring in every game he's captained England -- were enough despite a second-half response from Alex Iwobi, as England's penultimate preparatory game went about as well as could be expected.
England took the lead in the seventh minute, Cahill rising above the Nigeria defence from an outswinging Kieran Trippier corner, muscling a header into the top corner from around 10 yards out.
And for the whole of the first half England looked impressive in attack, the attacking quartet of Raheem Sterling, Kane, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard combining neatly and rapidly to slice through the Nigeria defence pretty much whenever they liked.
The lead was doubled not long before the break, when Sterling slipped a pass to Kane on the edge of the box. Kane shot with power but more or less straight at Francis Uzoho in the Nigeria goal, who seemed to mistime his dive and let the ball bounce in off his knee.
Nigeria emerged from half-time looking like a different team, and they pulled a goal back after only two minutes: Odion Ighalo shot against the post, it rebounded straight to Alex Iwobi and the Arsenal man tucked his effort into the corner.
Raheem Sterling, a man who has bafflingly spent much of this week on the front pages of English newspapers, then gave people something to genuinely and justifiably be annoyed about. Through on goal, he shifted the ball past Uzoho but then promptly fell to the ground, earning a booking for a blatant dive.
It was doubly odd given that he might well have scored had he simply stayed on his feet, even if the angle was tight. But after a concerted spell of broadly manufactured controversy, it was unwise, to say the least, to actually give his detractors something to complain about.
The remainder of the game drifted by in a succession of substitutions. In the end, this was a performance that both raised and answered a few questions for Southgate to ponder.
2. Sterling's poor outing adds fuel to the media fire
Amid the often hysterical, occasionally justified criticism of Sterling, it's easy to forget what actually matters, which is how he plays on the field.
Sterling scored 23 times for Manchester City last season, comfortably his best campaign and a tally that accounts for a little more than a third of his career goals. Pep Guardiola's faith and coaching have turned him into an expert wide poacher, Sterling so many times arriving at just the right time to finish so many of City's dizzying, rapid moves.
But it's been a different story for England. This was his 38th appearance for the national team, and he's scored only two goals. The last of those was in October 2015, against Estonia in a Euro 2016 qualifier.
There are the obvious caveats that he has not always played in his favoured position, and scoring a hatful of goals when Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva are providing the key ball is much easier than when, well, pretty much anyone else is.
But in theory Sterling is supposed to be England's second biggest goal threat, behind Harry Kane. In this game he wasted a few very presentable scoring chances, not least the one he threw away by diving.
Ultimately all will be forgiven if Sterling brings even a portion of his club form to the England team. At the moment, he isn't doing that though.
3. Four-man attack impresses but impractical
Two things were pretty clear from this England performance. Firstly, this was a bold, positive formation selected by Southgate, the attacking quartet combining with such slickness that you'd think they'd been playing together for years.
Secondly, there's no way England can play this system against anyone good at the World Cup.
Against teams that are more likely to defend and base their game plan around being "hard to beat," this sort of aggression will be appropriate, perhaps even necessary. The pace at which the four of them passed the ball could be the way to break down a packed defence, and make those encounters much less frustrating affairs.
But at the same time they exposed England's shortcomings at the back. Eric Dier might not be as careless in possession as he occasionally was here in every game, but the lack of protection he provided for the back three will be exploited by any half-potent attack.
Southgate has clearly settled on playing this defensive system, and there are perfectly logical reasons for it, but it remains a work in progress. Two of the men who started here (and who will probably start the World Cup) are not used to playing in the system, while the third -- Cahill -- spent a decent portion of the season on Chelsea's bench.
Cahill himself didn't help. He started the game looking fairly comfortable, and took his goal very well, but after a slight formation change by Nigeria and a more threatening attack in the second half, he was jittery and uncertain -- despite surprisingly being named man of the match. Whichever formation Southgate selects, Cahill will have to be more solid than he showed here.
It was worth the experiment in one of only two friendlies England have before their opener in Russia against Tunisia, but the evidence presented by the experiment suggests Southgate can't repeat it against, say, group rivals Belgium.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.