There was bound to be a setback at some stage in the brave new world of Steve McClaren. It was just not expected to occur in a home game with Macedonia, a team ranked outside the top 50 countries in the world. England's worst performance of the four under the new head coach might even have brought a first defeat as a wildly open second half followed a dull first period, in which the visitors had rather shockingly been the more composed and dangerous side.
Now England go to Zagreb for what ought to be an even stiffer test on Wednesday against Croatia. Steven Gerrard, booked for the second successive game before hitting the crossbar late on, will be missing, offering hope of a recall to Shaun Wright-Phillips, Scott Parker or Phil Neville.
Wright-Phillips was a lively substitute yesterday, one of the few home players who will remember the occasion with any satisfaction. Paul Robinson kept a ninth clean sheet in 10 games; Ledley King, called in as a late replacement for the injured Rio Ferdinand, improved after a nervous start; and Peter Crouch was a resilient attacker who might have been rewarded near the end after beginning to win some telling headers. But Wayne Rooney was still off the pace on his return to international football and the balance in midfield was again unconvincing.
The best player on the pitch, as in England's scrambled 1-0 victory in Skopje last month, was Lazio's Goran Pandev, a gifted performer steeped in the wiles of Serie A. He played even further forward this time but was also quick to drop off, and the home defence never quite got to grips with an attacking system also featuring two wider players.
McClaren had insisted that England "must play better football" than in the first game, but despite an improvement after the interval it did not happen. He will again consider changing to a 3-5-2 system on Wednesday, though that would have been more comfortably done on the back of a resounding victory than a stuttering draw.
One of the virtues of 3-5-2 would have been offering extra defensive cover at the back to cope with Pandev and the other two nominal strikers. After discussing that system during the week with his coaches, however, and working on it in training, McClaren did as his predecessor, Sven Goran Eriksson, had invariably done for five years, starting with the sort of tried and trusted formation more familiar to most England players from their day jobs. Not that the benefits were obvious as a thoroughly disjointed performance materialised before the largest crowd since the leaving of Wembley in 2000.
"Everybody's disappointed and frustrated," McClaren said. "We didn't perform to normal standards and our passing wasn't very good. It's all about showing character now. We've never had three good games and accepted the plaudits. Now we must bounce back on Wednesday."
Macedonia's coach, Srecko Katanec, once an elegant Yugoslavia midfielder, said: "We played very well tactically and very offensively, though I expected England to play more aggressively. I'd have been satisfied with a point before the game." His players appeared thrilled with one afterwards, just as they had been following the 2-2 draw at Southampton four years ago this month.
A series of crosses from an England side beginning at high tempo proved no guide whatsoever to how the rest of the opening half would pan out. There was one piece of bewitching control from Rooney, preceding a centre for Crouch that Frank Lampard could not get to, but nothing to trouble the unfortunately named goalkeeper Jane Nikoloski until as late as the 42nd minute.
Long before then, Macedonia were breaking with purpose, feeding the ball into Pandev and almost profiting more than once from what followed. In the 11th minute, Ilco Naumoski, one of the two other forwards, supplied him for a tricky run, turning King inside out before shooting into the side-netting. There was further alarm eight minutes from the interval, the right wing-back Vlade Lazarevski crossing and Robert Petrov hitting an ambitious volley into the crowd.
All England had managed at the other end was a couple more crosses from Stewart Downing and, finally, a threat from Lampard, who burst into the penalty area but had space for little more than a jab at goal that Nikoloski was able to push away. The statisticians must at least have marked it down as an attempt on goal, but it was the only one for a disillusioned Manchester audience, who responded with a mild bout of booing at the half-time whistle.
The second half began much as the first had done, with brief England pressure giving way to a sense of shock at the way proceedings were unfolding. Mercifully, there was, however, much more serious action in front of both goals. Only a couple of minutes in, Petrov was booked for a foul out on England's right flank, Downing curling the free-kick in for Lampard's header to bring a save from Nikolovski.
But the next yellow card soon went to Gerrard, although he appeared to have won the ball fairly. Added to his unnecessary booking late in the Skopje game, that meant a possibly costly ban from the visit to Croatia. Aleksander Mitreski headed Lazarevski's corner just over and the substitute Aco Stojkov outpaced King, forcing Robinson to concede a corner and demand greater concentration from his defenders.
The only benefit of these lapses by McClaren's team was to encourage their opponents forward and open up the game to a degree not often seen in home matches. Twice Ashley Cole had to be alert to break up swift attacking sorties. But scoring opportunities were finally occurring at the other end. The easiest of them fell, unfortunately, to a man who has never scored for his country in 83 games: Gary Neville found himself four yards out at the far post as the goalkeeper brilliantly parried Crouch's typical header, but the United man both lost and lifted his head, the shot landing high in his beloved Stretford End.
Crouch, beginning to win more and more balls in the air, then headed wide and set up first Rooney and then Wright-Phillips - on for Downing - for shots both saved by Nikoloski. In between, Nikolce Noveski broke forward to dink the ball over Robinson and almost into the net. Jermain Defoe replaced Rooney for the exciting but unproductive finale, in which Gerrard hit a 20-yarder against the bar and Crouch was thwarted twice more.
Ferdinand should recover from his back spasm for Wednesday, when England's defence must be prepared for some hard labour and the rest of the team will need far more poise and purpose than was in evidence yesterday.Reuse content