England owe Joe Hart's heroics in dismal 0-0 draw vs. Slovenia
England needed some stunning saves by goalkeeper Joe Hart to rescue a 0-0 draw in Slovenia on Tuesday. Here are three quick points on their World Cup qualifier in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
1. England thank Hart for their point
With seven points from three matches, England remain on course to reach Russia 2018 but must consider themselves fortunate to have escaped Slovenia with a draw. A series of individual defensive errors granted some golden chances to the hosts, but Hart proved the saviour for interim manager Gareth Southgate, whose decision to drop Wayne Rooney did not have the desired effect of lifting England's overall performance.
Credit for that is owed to Slovenia, whose pressing play offered scant space and time with which England could work. Slovenia really ought to have taken the lead in the 10th minute when thoughtless play from Eric Dier granted Roman Bezjak a golden chance, one-on-one, to beat Hart. Bezjak's hesitant finish was smothered by the Torino loanee before another wild touch from Dier presented Jasmin Kurtic with a further chance: He struck a post. Bezjak slashed the second rebound wide of goal.
It was a dreadful passage of play from Dier; the Spurs man was ultimately selected for his defensive qualities ahead of Rooney. Slovenia's hurried, excitable finishing would be of significant assistance all night.
The first half ended in something of a no-contest, with Slovenia's initial energy fading and England's forwards failing to connect. A series of crosses from the wing either crashed off the first defender or ballooned out of play, with Theo Walcott particularly profligate in possession. Neither Danny Rose nor Kyle Walker were able to present much danger as attacking full-backs.
Hart, jettisoned by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, was his country's undoubted star performer, making a fine save from Bostjan Cesar at the beginning of the second half and immediately following it with a world-class claw away of a goal-bound Kurtic header, which required a second touch on the ball, with Hart crashing into a post on his way back down to earth.
Jordan Henderson, who had replaced Wayne Rooney as captain, made a mistake similar to Dier's, and Hart was again required to rescue matters, this time from Josip Ilicic in the 71st minute. Not long after that, Rooney had the armband back on, coming on a substitute. Playing off Daniel Sturridge instead of in midfield, the under-fire Man United star pinged a shot wide in the 80th minute, one of a series of potshots that England took in the late stages.
Yet the golden chance never came, even as Slovenia tired and with Marcus Rashford introduced in the 83rd minute for a disappointing Daniel Sturridge. It ought to be of concern that in none of their World Cup qualifiers so far -- that last-gasp 1-0 defeat of Slovakia in Sam Allardyce's sole match in charge, Saturday's 2-0 defeat of Malta, and Tuesday night's squalid draw -- has England looked much improved compared to the embarrassment of Euro 2016.
2. Walcott woeful, Dier poor, Henderson hampered
The seal has been broken, and Rooney sat sombrely behind Southgate instead of in his starting XI. It was up to the others to step up. Rooney has been nowhere near alone in underperforming for the national team; Walcott, again on the right flank here, was equally poor in Saturday's 2-0 defeat of Malta on Saturday.
Tuesday's game was another occasion to suggest Walcott is far too inconsistent to be relied upon. His most telling contribution came right at the start of the second half when he hoofed the ball clear from the edge of the area, and it was little surprise that he was replaced first, withdrawn for the far livelier Andros Townsend.
Henderson, meanwhile, has succeeded Steven Gerrard as Liverpool's leader and is in pole position to be Rooney's permanent replacement as England captain. Henderson had been Saturday's best performer, but Slovenia didn't grant him the room to play the same telling passes or surges in support of the attack. Initially, Henderson started from where he left off, with two crisp passes playing their part in two early chances for Sturridge, but Slovenia's tight defensive lines and a sincere lack of movement from England's attackers eventually cut down the supply lines.
Dier, Rooney's actual replacement in midfield, betrayed heavy nerves and more than a little thoughtlessness when playing the no-look pass to set up that first-half series of chances for Slovenia.
Dier collected a yellow card for a loose tackle from behind on Ilicic and thus risked dismissal from the 20th minute on, a severe test of credentials against highly energetic opponents. Whether Rooney would have lasted the pace was immaterial; this was Dier's and Henderson's chance to cement their future, and it was somewhat concerning that England's best, most fluid midfield moments usually arrived after John Stones stepped up from centre-back.
3. Not easy for Alli, Lingard
At 20 years old, Dele Alli would appear to have the No.10 role to himself for the foreseeable future, certainly during the four-game audition to replace Allardyce that Southgate is currently enjoying. Jesse Lingard, 24 in December, is far more of a late developer but was a decent servant to Southgate at the under-21 level and is being given his own chance.
Both excelled against Malta and won public approval from the interim manager. Slovenia brought a different assignment, and both were expected to track back and help out their teammates; it was noticeable in the first half how often Slovenia were able to break on the counter with too many Englishman caught at the wrong end of the field.
Lingard rather shrank from the competition as a whole until a late chance was laid on for him by Rooney. Meanwhile Alli, even if the ball never quite dropped for him in an area where he could do real damage, was industrious, always seeking for a chance to get on the ball and create something. When England did get the chance to counter, it was usually Alli at the fulcrum, though to little avail. He was eventually subbed off for Rooney with 17 minutes to play.
Alli and Lingard will have to put this bitty, gritty match down to experience.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.