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Commentary

Football: England remain unconvincing with or without Rooney

Life without Wayne Rooney did not even extend into the last quarter of an hour at the Stozice Stadium on Tuesday.

The board went up 18 minutes from time summoning Dele Alli from the fray, the substitute trotting on to receive the armband from Jordan Henderson before he settled into that pocket of space in front of Slovenia's rearguard.

The story was there to be made his own but, in the end, his greatest involvement was as peacemaker in the late melee which summed up a fractious occasion.

This was arguably the kind of disjointed display that betrays a side who have gone through three coaches in four matches, leaving a group of players rather unsettled.

England are two points clear at the top of this World Cup qualifying group but here was evidence that their issues extend far beyond the involvement, or not, of their record scorer.

This was arguably the kind of disjointed display that betrays a side who have gone through three coaches in four matches, leaving a group of players rather unsettled by all the upheaval and bewildered by their own inability to carry out the well-intended instructions of the latest incumbent.

As Gareth Southgate pointed out post-match, he had "inherited a mess", and sometimes it showed.

The interim manager had placed trust in youth, demanded pace in the pass and movement, and a team willing to make brave decisions in possession.

Instead, on a shoddy surface and against canny and rugged opposition, that eagerness gave the performance a rather frantic and ragged feel. They lacked composure too often, and even imagination born of clear thinking.

These are not new failings and Rooney's presence from the start would hardly have guaranteed a more convincing performance given the toils that have dropped him out of the line-up. But it was still troubling to hear the Slovenia coach, Srecko Katanec, justifiably claim disappointment that his team, ranked 67 in the world, had not won.

Southgate will have learnt plenty before he felt compelled to turn to a familiar face as he desperately sought to exert some authority on a rather fraught occasion.

He ended up flinging on Rooney because "there was a need for some experience in there in that period of the game to calm things down". But he stood by his decision to start with Henderson alongside Eric Dier in central midfield, a pair of athletes accustomed to operating there and ready for a more ambitious approach from Slovenia where Malta had been so meek.

The problem was an imbalance remained across the middle, with Alli, Jesse Lingard and Theo Walcott all too peripheral for comfort. The attacking trio's failure to make inroads spread anxiety elsewhere in the collective.

Neither Henderson nor Dier, overworked and increasingly flustered, was exempt. Both delivered panicked back-passes that threatened to hand the hosts the lead they merited, only for Joe Hart's excellence to preserve England their point.

Too many others were off colour. Perhaps this was to be expected. Southgate had only overseen five full training sessions with a squad depleted by withdrawals through injury - Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne, Danny Drinkwater and Raheem Sterling would appear to be the key absentees among plenty, while Harry Kane and Luke Shaw were never in contention - and it would take time for any manager to impress his own ideas.

Time is what he does not have. But the individual errors which crept in revealed the fragility that is never far from undermining the national team's approach.

Those back-passes summed it up but Gary Cahill and John Stones, for all his self-confidence on the ball, were culpable of mistakes.

Kyle Walker was not himself on the flank and Daniel Sturridge lurched back into over-indulgence.

At the end, perhaps this was actually a point to be cherished, plucked from a match that was very nearly lost.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2016, with the headline 'England remain unconvincing with or without Rooney'. Print Edition | Subscribe