A late Harry Maguire goal spared John Stones’s blushes and rescued a third consecutive victory of this World Cup qualifying campaign for England. The 2-1 win means Gareth Southgate’s team top group I and are well on the path towards qualification for Qatar 2022.
Dropped points against Poland would have been self-inflicted by England as it was a Stones error when in possession on the edge of his own area that presented Jakub Moder with the equaliser to cancel out Harry Kane’s first half penalty.
Despite the set-back, and having watched his team not trouble Poland to the same extent in the second period nor chosen to deploy any substitutes irrespective of tiring legs, Southgate was able to celebrate a successful international break after Maguire struck to give England the win.
Story of the game
Southgate’s decision to stick with the 4-3-3 set-up over his previously preferred 3-4-3 was the clearest sign yet that England will start with a four-man defence in their European Championship opener against Croatia in June. It was Southgate being bold and suggests that he has realised it’s the best way of accommodating England’s attacking riches.
England were dominant from the outset and took control of the game with the penalty in the 19th minute. Phil Foden won the ball and fed Raheem Sterling, whose turn of pace was too much for Poland’s defence. Having advanced past Grzegorz Krychowiak, who had only been given the green light to play in this game 24 hours earlier, Sterling slowed as he reached the byline.
Michal Helik was with him and rashly slid in, catching Sterling with his trailing leg and bringing the England attacker down. It may have been soft on second viewing but there was nothing of the sort when it came to Kane’s penalty, which he sent powerfully into the top of Wojciech Szczesny’s net.
England’s first half was pleasing and featured an abundance of Mason Mount, as they usually do, and plenty of Kane, who seemed to pop up all over the Wembley pitch. The only aspect of the home side’s play that was letting them down was the creation of clear chances and that was evident when Sterling spurned a chance to lay off Foden in the area. Really, Sterling should have shot at goal.
Though any talk of England’s attack currently must feature Foden who is always available for a pass and able to jink his way into the opponent’s area - sometimes defying gravity and differences in physicality. It was his flick from a Mount pass that gave Kane a sight of goal just after the half-hour but the low shot was well turned away by Szczesny.
Poland simply had to try and keep England at bay, although they were more than capable of manoeuvring themselves up-field too. The absence of star striker Robert Lewandowski meant the spotlight fell on Karol Swiderski but the fact he was replaced at half time by Arkadiusz Milik spells out how rarely Poland troubled Nick Pope’s goal during the first half.
Another change made by Paulo Sousa, the Poland manager - and this time to the system, moving from a 3-4-3 to a 4-4-2 - saw the visitors increase their aggressiveness and the leveller soon followed.
Earlier there had been crossed wires between Stones and Pope when dealing with a loose ball but this time the blame lay solely at the feet of Stones.
He received a roll-out from his goalkeeper with his first touch and then played a heavy second with his right foot. Moder capitalised and stole the ball off him and after playing a one-two with Milik, the Barnsley player finished past Pope. Stones raised his hand apologetically, he knew it was his doing.
Poland went close again when Milik sent a header just wide and for all of their good play in the opening half, England looked depleted. It was somewhat surprising that Southgate didn’t opt to freshen things up from the bench, but just as it seemed dropped points were becoming a reality, England won a corner.
Foden sent it in from the right but the looping ball travelled over everyone gathered in front of the Poland goal. Stones, at the back post, leapt athletically to keep the ball alive and play it back across and there was Maguire, on the penalty spot, to pivot and smash a shot which Szczesny could only palm into the roof of his net. England could breathe again and no one more so than Stones.
Stones must move on from blip
It feels almost harsh to criticise Stones’s error that allowed Poland a way back into this game, but the England defender’s poor touch and equally slack judgement did almost cost the home side the victory. He must now put the blip behind him and continue his reemergence as one of the best centre-backs in the Premier League.
The past four months have been some of the best of Stones’s career to date. The partnership that he has built with Ruben Dias at the heart of Manchester City’s defence is not only keeping clean sheets but also taking Pep Guardiola’s team to the title.
Stones has chipped in with crucial goals as well as having reestablished himself as a confident defender. His form has led him back into the England squad and starting XI and will most likely take him to the European Championship this summer.
It was therefore difficult to watch his aberration at Wembley here. This was the type of error that always felt close to happening when Stones was struggling for consistent performances 18 months ago. And in fact did happen in an England shirt in the Nations League semi final defeat against the Netherlands in June 2019.
His hard work, however, has all but eradicated that nervousness and the lax touches are few and far between now but it would represent the true completion of Stones’s revival if he can put this blip behind him.
Southgate clearly likes Phillips
Kalvin Phillips has started all three of England’s games in this international window and that is a sign of how highly Southgate rates the deep-lying Leeds United midfielder. His performances in the Premier League certainly warranted a first call-up to the senior team and his continued class has earned him a chance of a starting berth.
Whether Southgate needed to play Phillips and Declan Rice, two deep-sitters, alongside each other in the fluid 4-3-3 formation for the victories over Albania and now Poland is debatable. But perhaps the England manager sees Phillips as a direct replacement for Jordan Henderson, who was not included in this squad due to injury.
Perhaps, this being Southgate’s last chance to test and trial systems and personnel prior to naming his Euro squad in late May, he wanted to get as close to his preferable starting XI as possible. And thus with not being able to select Henderson, who is expected to start if fit, Southgate opted to go with the closest replica.
Whichever way Southgate turns in terms of his midfield come the summer, Phillips will be there, all being well, most likely as a back-up rather than a starter should Henderson be available. Nevertheless, his three consecutive starts here have done him no harm at all.
Maguire, who scored the winner, said that “it was a big win” for England’s over Poland to ensure their World Cup qualification started with three victories. The defender also said that Stones, his centre-back partner, will take the error, which gifted Poland their equaliser, in his stride and “come back stronger”.
"It is a big win. We are playing to play at a World Cup. We started the game well but in the second half we didn't. They changed shape a bit and it took us some time to get used to it. But it is nice to get the three points. Three games in a short space of time and we have injuries too.
"John [Stones] has been brilliant this year. Defenders make mistakes and when we do we get scrutinised. He made up for it with a great header at the back post. I said to him to just keep going. We don't like making mistakes but sometimes we are at fault for goals. We are not perfect. He is in great form and he will come back strong.”
Southgate also offered his verdict on the game and praised Stones for putting his mistake behind him and playing a crucial part in the winning goal.
“We were very good in the first half and in control of the game. Obviously to concede a goal like we did can hit the team, but they stuck at it, recovered their composure, and it was an important set-play winner. John Stones has managed to compose himself for the rest of the game and had a part in the winning goal.
“You can fold in those moments and he didn’t. He’s been having a really good season. Everybody’s got a lot to play for for the Euros. We did a lot of good things this week but there is still a step to go. Fatigue was starting to tell but the players stuck at it and they deserved the win.”