On a night when England seemed to create little other than problems for themselves, it was a bit of hard graft that got them through. There was the force of Harry Maguire’s winner, and the utter resilience of John Stones in keeping the play alive to set it up. That also kept alive England’s 100 per cent record, after the Manchester City centre-half had initially gifted Poland their equaliser.
It was thereby a display of fighting spirit rather than attacking spirit, as a side with so much talent starting - if not in this case coming off the bench - struggled against an opposition side missing their dominant star in Robert Lewandowski.
You wouldn’t have guessed it for long periods of the second half, when it looked like this could be a poor two points dropped.
It was instead a performance that will provoke more questions of the balance Gareth Southgate has struck for this squad, and whether the abundant attacking quality is being best used - especially with that double-pivot midfield. It was mostly rather workmanlike, right up that winner.
As such, it won’t escape notice that the goals in one of England’s more awkward games again came from a penalty and a set-piece. Southgate still has much to solve there.
For his part, England did deserve their early lead. Poland could have little complaint about going behind given the direction of play at that point, but could have some argument about the manner they went behind.
It was another of those decisions from these qualifiers where - yes - you notice the absence of VAR. This certainly would have been one that warranted another look. As Sterling weaved his way into the box, Michal Helik stuck out a stretched leg to try and block an anticipated cross, only for the forward to go down. Any contact looked soft to non-existent.
Referee Bjorn Kuipers still pointed to the spot, giving Harry Kane the chance to claim his 34th international goal, and to claim another record. The captain’s strike down the centre meant he has now scored more penalties for England than any other player.
Some of those who have been unnecessarily critical of Kane’s contribution might quibble about that but, really, it’s absurd. They are just an embellishment to a ludicrously efficient rate from open play.
On that, England did look fluent for some periods of the first half. There had at least been some sense of Southgate beginning to figure out what his best XI is… only for two of the players in the foundation to suffer some of their worst moments.
Pope had laid a seed of uncertainty with poor control in the minutes before the equaliser, and then created problems for Stones by playing an awkward ball in behind him. The Manchester City centre-half should still have done so much better than his inexplicably ponderous attempt to bring it out. Substitute Arkadiusz Milik was almost as casual on receiving the ball, but in the right way. All of that was in such contrast to the thunderousness of Jakub Moder’s finish. He left Pope with absolutely no chance as the ball was hammered into the top corner with extreme prejudice.
Almost with the speed of that strike, the game quickly went from one where England were in command, to a proper back and forth. Poland even began to play the kind of football the home side would idealise, with fine interchanges at pace. One almost saw Milik put his team ahead, only to put what looked a relatively easy header well wide.
At the other end, there was now a rushed anxiety to England’s play, in contrast to the control of before. They were looking to force chances rather than craft them. That was almost summed up by Kane’s reckless dive at the feet of Wojciech Szczesny. He was maybe lucky not to receive further sanction. England were lucky Lewandowski was not on the pitch.
Southgate was missing options of his own, even if all of Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount were on the pitch. The bench did look that bit less dangerous without Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Callum Hudson-Odoi or Jack Grealish available.
So, normal service was resumed. England looked to a set-piece. Stones did supremely to keep their corner in, and Maguire did even better to send it in. It was a fine finish from the centre-half, and a necessary finish to the game for Southgate. He keeps that 100 per cent record but, through this game, looks that bit further away from 100 per cent knowing his team.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies