Joe Hart produced one of his best performances at international level to extend the England’s seven-year unbeaten record in tournament qualifiers, but on a frustrating night in Slovenia, the Torino goalkeeper’s contribution was a rare positive.
Not since losing in Ukraine in September 2009 had England emerged without a point in a qualification game, but they came as close as a coat of paint from surrendering that statistic in Ljubljana on a night when Hart made three crucial saves to help secure a 0-0 draw.
Ultimately, a point away from a home in arguably the toughest game in Group F will be regarded as a good result by interim-manager Gareth Southgate.
But the flip side is that England have now scored just four goals in five games and they can no longer rely on Wayne Rooney – dropped to the bench for this game – to come to the rescue.
England are in a trough right now, but they are at least enduring their dark days in one of Europe’s most navigable qualification groups.
Southgate’s decision to drop Rooney was a bold one, even though it was the right one, because the unforgiving nature of the game nowadays would have ensured criticism for the interim-manager in the event of the move backfiring.
Few, if any, on Monday evening were prepared to suggest Southgate had made the wrong call, so the 46-year-old could at least prepare for this game knowing that nobody could legitimately condemn his selection if his team proved rudderless without its erstwhile captain, whose name was chanted by the England supporters before kick-off.
But despite Slovenia’s lowly position of 67th in the Fifa world rankings, England’s hard-fought 3-2 victory in Ljubljana in June 2015 during qualification for Euro 2016 emphasised the difficulty of this fixture, with or without Rooney.
The Stadion Stozice is intimate rather than hostile and Slovenia are a team devoid of star names, but they are a well-drilled unit under Srecko Katanec and England, just as they did 16 months ago, would have to earn anything they got in Ljubljana.
But for large swathes of the first-half, England appeared hell-bent on giving Slovenia a helping hand, with a lack of cohesion made worse by some awful mistakes in possession.
England were sloppy and complacent, with John Stones setting alarm bells ringing inside the opening five minutes with a risky dribble inside his own penalty area before the Manchester City defender’s class enabled him to escape the situation he had placed himself in.
Some would argue that is the beauty of Stones – his ability to remain calm and measured when team-mates and supporters are screaming for him to release the ball.
But the centre-half walks a tightrope and he proceeded to lose the ball on countless occasions, with the only saving grace the fact that he did so in the centre of the pitch rather than within sight of Joe Hart’s goal.
Eric Dier, selected in midfield ahead of Rooney alongside captain Jordan Henderson, almost gifted Slovenia an opening goal on ten minutes when his careless back-pass was cut out by Roman Bezjak thirty yards from goal.
England player ratings vs Slovenia
England player ratings vs Slovenia
1/11 Joe Hart – 9 out of 10
England’s man of the match on the night. The Torino ‘keeper made a number of fantastic saves included a world-class stop just after half time.
2/11 Kyle Walker – 5 out of 10
Couldn’t get forward as much as he would have liked and didn’t stand out defensively either.
3/11 John Stones – 5 out of 10
Unusually sloppy in possession and never looked completely comfortable when defending Slovenian attacks.
4/11 Gary Cahill – 5 out of 10
In Rooney’s absence was supposed to be one of the leaders in the team but his partnership with Stones is still lacking understanding.
5/11 Danny Rose – 5 out of 10
A couple of attacking forays but also left exposed defensively once or twice.
6/11 Eric Dier – 4 out of 10
Another guilty of losing possession too easily and nearly gifted the hosts an opening goal.
7/11 Jordan Henderson – 5 out of 10
Not the all-action performance we saw against Malta but not for the lack of trying. Unclear whether he is England’s long-term leader.
8/11 Dele Alli – 6 out of 10
Tried to create and was England’s best attacking outlet but was missing that final ball on a couple of occasions.
9/11 Jesse Lingard – 5 out of 10
Didn’t see much of the ball but never stopped running. Moved more centrally when Alli went off and had more of an influence.
10/11 Theo Walcott – 3 out of 10
Another below-par display before he was replaced by Townsend. Will have to keep up his Arsenal form if he is going to be picked for the next squad.
11/11 Daniel Sturridge – 5 out of 10
Had a couple of half chances but was mainly restricted to long-range efforts and his decision making was poor at times.
Hart raced out to clear the danger, sliding out to win the ball on the edge of the penalty area, but the goalkeeper only provided a brief respite.
The ball dropped to Slovenia, who played pinball with the chaotic England defenders, before Jasmin Kurtic curled a right-foot shot against the post from 18 yards.
England, perhaps missing Rooney’s experience if not his recent poor form, were all at sea.
Henderson, an honest worker rather than international class midfielder, did his best to cajole and motivate his team-mates, but he was surrounded by players who treated the ball like a hot potato.
Gary Cahill was another culprit, repeatedly losing the ball with hopeless passes, and it was a cutting chant from the England supporters in the 31st minute when Rooney’s name was sung again.
Three days after being booed by a section of the Wembley crowd against Malta, Rooney was now the fans’ darling and saviour again – a reality which would probably prompt a shake of the head by the Manchester United captain.
Rooney rescued a victory for England here last year, with his late goal adding to two from Jack Wilshere to secure three points, and the temptation must have been there for Southgate to throw him on up-front and remind the country’s all-time leading goalscorer that his value to the team is in the front-line rather than spraying passes around from the safety of his defensive third.
Southgate resisted the urge to change his team at half-time, opting instead to keep faith with his starting XI.
But Slovenia almost forced him to rip up his plans just two minutes into second-half when Kurtic forced a stunning save from Hart to keep the scoreline blank.
Kurtic had escaped his marker and raced towards the near post to connect with a corner and he rose highest to direct a glancing header towards the top corner.
Hart, back-pedalling, somehow palmed the ball onto the woodwork before then clawing it out of the net with his other hand.
Slovenia claimed a goal, but referee Deniz Aytekin rejected their appeals, with television replays subsequently backing up the German official.
England continued to toil away, however, and the calls for Rooney become more audible once Josip Ilicic sent a left foot shot wide from 20 yards on 59 minutes.
Southgate did make a change on the hour, but rather than introduce Rooney, he chose to replace Theo Walcott with Andros Townsend.
Ten years into his England career, Walcott continues to frustrate, but after two dismal displays this week, the Arsenal winger must surely be discarded when Southgate names his squad for next month’s encounter with Scotland.
And within a minute of entering the fray, Townsend forced goalkeeper Jan Oblak into a full-stretch save with a curling volley – more than Walcott threatened in two games.
Slovenia continued to create the better chances, largely through English mistakes, and Hart saved his team again on 69 minutes when mistakes by Cahill and Henderson let in Ilicic.
With England beginning to wobble, Rooney was finally introduced on 73 minutes, in place of Dele Alli, with the instruction to play in the number ten role just behind Sturridge.
And although he was unable to unlock the door, Rooney showed more in his 17 minutes further forward than he has managed in his previous deep-lying role.
He shot just wide on 79 minutes, moments after Danny Rose had scuffed a right-foot effort into the side-netting, and then created a chance for Jesse Lingard – which was well saved by Oblak – with a neat lay-off on the edge of the penalty area.
Lingard, who improved dramatically in the second-half, was then booked following a late clash with Slovenia defender Aljaz Struna as tempers flared on the pitch.
It had many roots – frustration and over-physical challenges from the Slovenians being two of them – but ultimately England only had themselves to blame.
Yet without the necessary quality, this performance may be a worrying sign of things to come.
Slovenia (4-1-3-2): Oblak; Struna, Samardzic, Cesar, Jokic; Krhin; Kurtic, Birsa, Verbic; Ilicic, Bezjak.
Substitutes: Koprivec (g), Belec (g), Skubic, Jovic, Crnic, Novakovic, Trajkovski, Mevlja, Kronaveter, Zajc, Pihler, Omladic.
England (4-2-3-1): Hart; Walker, Cahill, Stones, Rose; Henderson, Dier; Lingard, Alli, Walcott; Sturridge.
Substitutes: Pickford (g), Forster (g), Smalling, Gibbs, Antonio, Keane, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rooney, Vardy, Rashford, Townsend.
Referee: Deniz Aytekin (Germany)Reuse content