Don’t prime the confetti cannons just yet. The headline is another three points and another international break navigated without damage beyond the paintwork. But this was a match which finished with Jesse Lingard and Dominic Calvert-Lewin – two bewilderingly late England substitutes – playing keep ball in the corner.
The European Championship is coming into sharper focus. But first, in the peripheral vision of this outrageously talented collective, World Cup qualification. A formality, surely.
But this wasn’t the 90-minute victory lap against punch-drunk minnows which is such a prominent feature of England’s experience outside of major tournaments.
In lieu of any real jeopardy, it was a match seeking a story, something that could be neatly wrapped up in, say, a pithy 500-word match report. News of Robert Lewandowski’s injury meant that the most obvious narrative, Harry Kane v Robert Lewandowski, the unstoppable force vs the unmovable object, a man apart vs a man apart, was not forthcoming. But Poland didn’t need their headline act to make life difficult for England.
The passing was heavy in the opening throes, as is often the case in these affairs. England’s reconnaissance mission continued for 20 minutes, the ball moving laterally with little penetration. That was until Sterling flamed past the Poland defense, felt the clip and went to ground. In quasi-Panenka fashion, Kane clipped home the 34th goal of his England career. Penalties, a source of goals that have become oddly reliable for England.
Sterling’s feet fluttered between the backline and into the area once again not ten minutes later. Again, he was felled, though this time no whistle sounded. England’s best moments invariably came through him, with a little help from Mason Mount on the left-hand side of the midfield three.
The second half began in a similarly sedate manner to the first. It was a match that reeked of a 2-0 England win with little to talk about thereafter. But John Stones, so often a merchant of chaos in England colours, had other ideas.
He gave England an unwelcome blast of nostalgia when he turned an innocuous situation into a heart-in-mouth and then ball-in-net one. One careless touch, then another. Brighton’s Jakub Moder was the grateful recipient, swatting past Nick Pope with half an hour left to play.
From then, it was Poland who took the game to England. It looked as though this, England’s last competitive match before an era-defining tournament on home soil, was to serve as a vindication for our natural fatalism.
But a corner was all it took. Stones’ knockdown at the back-post was met by Maguire’s uncharacteristically clean finish. Stones was redeemed and England’s blushes were spared.
There is no point in pretending that we don’t have a level of talent which, on nights like this, will insulate us from failure. The footballing IQ of players like Phil Foden – who showed glimpses of his magnetic best tonight – is off the charts. But tonight, the synapses didn’t really begin to fire.
For all the gob-smacking talent at Gareth Southgate’s disposal, it was a penalty and goal from a corner that secured the three points, à la Russia 2018. Then as now, this is not an England side with an insatiable appetite for destruction. Individually, perhaps, when they play in their perfectly-oiled club sides, drilled with neurotic attention to detail, these players allow the opposition no pity or peace. But that is not the case when they are subject to the natural limitations of international football, which is essentially a jousting match in which England almost always have the stronger lance. There is a time and a place for patience and for pragmatism. This was not it.