The encouraging news for England is that Harry Kane is looking sharp, Raheem Sterling seems remarkably unaffected by all the recent scrutiny and, if Gareth Southgate’s team can play in the World Cup as they did here during the opening 45 minutes, perhaps it is not too outlandish to think they can make a decent impression in Russia after all.
Unfortunately that tells only part of the story and with England there always seems to be a cloud attached to every silver lining. Two-nil ahead at half-time, Southgate’s team looked on course to bid farewell to Wembley in style. As it was, the England manager must have been startled by their deterioration as Nigeria, such obliging opponents throughout the opening 45 minutes, pulled one back through Alex Iwobi and had enough of the ball thereafter to think they could have saved themselves.
That period was a stark reminder that England will fly to Russia on Tuesday week as very much a work in progress, pinning their hopes on a relatively inexperienced group of internationals.
Overall the good outweighed the bad but it was a close-run thing at times and Southgate must wonder why his players lost their momentum after such an impressive first-half performance, featuring goals from Gary Cahill and Kane and the clear impression of a team capable of playing slick, joined-up football.
They could not keep it up and that meant a rather awkward atmosphere after the final whistle when Southgate’s players gathered in the centre of the pitch for a choreographed show of togetherness.
Most of the crowd had already left although the ones who had stayed behind did return the players’ applause and, on the positive side, Southgate was so encouraged by the first-half display – “an excellent performance with the ball” – it is still perfectly conceivable this will be the team that starts against Tunisia in Volgograd on 18 June.
Southgate, in other words, has chosen not to employ orthodox wingers in a 3-5-2 system – or 3-3-2-2, to be entirely accurate – with Sterling operating in a central attacking position alongside Kane. Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young will be expected to provide the width as attacking full-backs. Dele Alli was chosen ahead of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, most probably because of the Tottenham Hotspur player’s understanding with Kane, and Jesse Lingard’s selection was another sign that Southgate wants two attacking midfielders who will make it their business to enter the opposition penalty area. Alli and Lingard have better scoring statistics than Loftus-Cheek and that counted in their favour.
Trippier, in the right-wing-back role, demonstrated his ability to deliver pinpoint crosses with the seventh-minute corner for Cahill’s headed goal and here, too, was evidence that Southgate’s preferred system allows Sterling to exert more of an influence than if he was playing on the wing.
Raheem Sterling makes his point on and off the pitch for England
Southgate admitted afterwards he gave serious consideration to dropping Sterling from his starting line-up because the Manchester City player reported a day late for training. Southgate decided against it because he did not want to add to the blizzard of headlines surrounding Sterling and the player looked determined to justify that decision. Sterling played as though he did not have a care in the world – a constant menace to the Nigerian defence with his speed, direct running and ability to create space for others. In the first half, anyway.
Unfortunately for Sterling, he is going through one of those periods in which he seems to have a magnetic attraction to controversy and, as Southgate has acknowledged, not all the criticism is unjustified. This one came in the form of a penalty-box dive seven minutes into the second half and, justifiably, he was shown a yellow card for his troubles. Sterling’s intention was to make it look as though the Nigeria goalkeeper, Francis Uzoho, had brought him down when, in reality, it was the England player trying to initiate the contact. It was poor on Sterling’s part and the Italian referee, Marco Guida, did not fall into the trap.
Perhaps that moment summed up England’s nervousness at the start of the second half. Nigeria were so overwhelmed during the opening 45 minutes that their manager, Gernot Rohr, brought on four substitutes straight after the interval, as well as switching to a three-man defence – and that, according to Southgate, threw his own players.
England v Nigeria: player ratings
England had looked entirely comfortable until that point but the complexion of the game changed when Odion Ighalo, the former Watford striker, cracked a shot against the post and Iwobi fired in the rebound.
England had plenty of defenders in close proximity. None could get to the ball ahead of Iwobi and suddenly the boisterous hordes of Nigerian fans behind that goal started to turn up the volume.
Kane had doubled England’s lead in the 39th minute from Sterling’s pass, firing in a right-footed shot from the edge of the penalty area and fortunate that Uzoho a made a pig’s ear of keeping it out.
In the second half, however, England’s front two were never so threatening and, as Southgate pointed out, if they lose their focus so badly in the World Cup “it might put you out”. At least England held on, but the game drifted rather aimlessly to its conclusion and Southgate will hope for a less erratic performance when Costa Rica are the opponents in Leeds on Thursday.