England had the points on the board, they had the star quality and the theory was that they would drive home their favoritism, making a statement en-route to the last 16 of this European Championship. So much for theories. Instead, it turned into a night of frustration, when the flaws in Gareth Southgate’s attacking game-plan were etched across Wembley and Scotland revelled in showing their old rivals that it is a perilous business to write them off.
On an occasion that will live long in the memories of the few thousand visiting fans in attendance, who included Sir Alex Ferguson, their team defied England, holding them at arm’s length with a performance of spirit and no little quality. From an England point of view, it was disconcerting to witness the relative ease with which they did so.
Scotland even had the chances to earn more than the draw, most notably a Stephen O’Donnell volley that extended Jordan Pickford in the first half, and they will now believe that a first ever qualification for the knockout stage of a major finals is on. They are alive and kicking, and glory will beckon if they can beat Croatia in their final group game at Hampden Park on Tuesday.
The smiles at full time belonged to them, the on-pitch celebrations were theirs and so were the heroes – from O’Donnell at right wing-back to the fit-again Kieran Tierney on the left of the back three to Billy Gilmour and John McGinn in midfield. Gilmour, at 20 years of age and on the occasion of his third cap, gave a nerveless and highly polished display.
The draw was not a disaster for England – far from it – but the performance left much to be desired and the loud boos that greeted the team at half-time and full time told their own story. So much for home advantage. England suffered under the weight of expectation.
The biggest worry for Southgate will be Harry Kane. He was starved of service, despite the manager bringing in Reece James and Luke Shaw in the full-back positions, and that was down to the team.
As the captain did in the win over Croatia, he dropped wide and deep in search of involvement, which did not pay off. But at the same time ,there is no escaping the impression that Kane is lacking sharpness. Is he fatigued at the end of a long season? As against Croatia, he was substituted before the end.
Southgate was left with plenty more to ponder, not least how, with the attacking riches at his disposal, his team were so blunt in the final third. He introduced Jack Grealish just after the hour, as many among the home crowd had begged him to do, and there were flashes from the midfielder, his composure on the ball pronounced.
On 74 minutes Grealish combined with Mason Mount, who released Shaw only for the left-back to miscue from a tight angle, and, if that gets a prominent mention, it is because England found space in dangerous areas so infrequently.
England’s passing lacked urgency and penetration and the closest that they came to a goal was from a Mount corner in the 12th minute, which an unmarked John Stones headed against a post. It would prove to be a rare Scottish lapse at the back. Stones had to score.
James struggled to offer much going forward and the same could be said of Southgate’s wide attackers – Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling. Mount’s drive and energy stood out but it was Scotland that created the better chances in open play before the break.
Che Adams, a willing runner from start to finish, saw an early shot blocked by Stones after he had dropped off into space but the big opportunity came in the 32nd minute, when Tierney took a pass from Andy Robertson, beat James to cross and O’Donnell caught his volley sweetly. Pickford’s save, low to his right, was excellent and Adams narrowly failed to get over the rebound.
Scotland’s burgeoning confidence was reflected when they dragged England about with a lengthy passing sequence on 44 minutes, the move finishing when Adams again dropped off and shot for goal, winning a corner via a deflection. Pickford raged. England had to be better.
Scotland were well drilled in their 5-3-2 formation, running hard for each other and England struggled to get in behind them.
Steve Clarke’s team grew in assurance as the minutes ticked down and they carried a threat on the counter in the second half, making their rivals a little fretful. It was the kind of night when England could not assert the levels of control they would have liked. Lyndon Dykes almost hooked home following a corner only for James to head clear. The shot did look to be fractionally off target.
What did England create? There were flickers from Mount in the first half and a brief flurry of pressure at the beginning of the second period, the high point of which was a James drive that flew high. But it was a long way from being enough to trouble Scotland. England’s momentum has been checked.