LJUBLJANA (Slovenia) • Gareth Southgate admitted he inherited "a mess" but insisted England remain on track under his stewardship after watching his team lean heavily on their goalkeeper in the 0-0 draw in Slovenia.
Joe Hart conjured fine saves from Jasmin Kurtic, Roman Bezjak and Josip Ilicic as England preserved their seven-year unbeaten record in qualifying tournaments at the Stozice Stadium.
The interim manager put on his captain, Wayne Rooney, for the final 17 minutes of their Group F World Cup qualifier in an effort to exert some control. He pointed to individual errors as a cause for concern, but attempted to offer some context to his side's struggles.
"I can't thank the players and support team enough for the backing I have had," Southgate said.
"We have taken over a mess and had to steady the ship. But we are on track... What was key was that it was an incredibly difficult 10 days in terms of taking over (from Sam Allardyce).
"We'd have liked six points (from Malta and Slovenia), to have scored more goals and been more fluent with the ball. But we sit top of the group. The overall objective is to qualify so, long term, this could be an important point."
This was the first time England had failed to win a qualifier since September 2013 but the point gained ended up feeling like a minor triumph.
"We owe our goalkeeper for that," Southgate said of Hart, who maintained the recent encouraging form displayed while on loan at Italian club Torino.
"I had a long chat with him in the week and asked him what he looks like when he's at his best. He started his answer with 'calm and composed'. He's been that in the two matches we've had.
"He showed the level he's capable of. He was top class."
That was summed up by an outstanding double save to tip Kurtic's second-half header on to the woodwork and then claw the loose ball behind. Hart needed lengthy treatment after his save because he landed heavily, but he was able to continue and kept the hosts at bay.
"It is my best game for a while," he told ITV.
"My body is in absolute pieces. I will struggle to get up tomorrow. I just did everything I could to keep it out. I don't know what happened, I have only just seen it now on camera - it hurt though. I landed on the frame of the goal."
The goalkeeper felt that there was still room for improvement, both for himself and England.
"We can all improve. We are a young team and have dug in, in an intense atmosphere and taken a point," he added. "On the night it was a difficult result, but we have to look at the bigger picture, which is trying to qualify for Russia."
The game ended in acrimonious scenes with players clashing after Gary Cahill's foul on Ilicic. Jesse Lingard appeared to take exception to Aljaz Struna's push on Marcus Rashford and had to be restrained and ushered away by Rooney.
"I'm told Jesse reacted to someone raising their hands at Marcus," Southgate said. "That's something he's got to cut out. There's a danger you get a red card in this sort of game when there can be inconsistency in a lot of the decisions."
THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE TIMES, LONDON