Fabio Capello stayed loyal to the 4-4-2 system, with Steven Gerrard on the left. But this time, Wayne Rooney had a new ally in attack. Jermain Defoe played alongside Rooney to form a partnership that offered pace and shooting power. But the most influential tweak to England’s style of play was to raise the tempo of their game. The Three Lions probed with a purpose and Slovenia struggled with the pace of the game. England got forward efficiently and were quick to win possession back if a move broke down. With Gerrard again lining up on the left, many were anxious to see if there would be an improvement on Friday’s display. One criticism of utilising Gerrard wide is that he is too far from Rooney, yet both linked brilliantly on a number of occasions. The pair sliced open the Slovenian back line following Defoe’s powerful effort, which presented Gerrard a shooting opportunity but was denied by Handanovic’s one-handed save. Then, they exchanged passes on the edge of the area, before Rooney opted to pull the trigger. The Manchester United forward was crowded out by a number of Slovenian defenders but again, the duo were at the fore of everything England did well. Gerrard didn’t wander from his left-sided berth, which provided England with a balance that enabled James Milner to stretch Bojan Djokic at left-back constantly.
The analysis of the previous England game bemoaned the lack of quality in the final third; enter Milner, stage right. The Aston Villa man was withdrawn against United States having barely touched the ball. However, he thrived in this must-win pressure situation. Milner crafted down the right flank and produced two crosses in the first-half that a certain David Beckham would have been proud of. Defoe turned the first of those in-despite Samir Handanovic’s best efforts and the second was parried away by the keeper, only for Frank Lampard to shoot narrowly over.
Rooney’s urgency in particular, emphasised the drastic improvement from the draw with Algeria. Desperate to return to goalscoring form, he hunted every lost cause. That spark we know he has was back. The width of the post and a clumsy Slovenian challenge eventually prevented Rooney from notching. With the cautious move to protect the Manchester United man taken, Joe Cole replaced him as England fans sounded their appreciation for a display that portrayed every inch the Wayne Rooney of old.
With just a one-goal lead, the defence needed to stand tall when called upon. England crafted a plethora of openings but were unable to snatch that second goal. At times like this defenders show their worth. On the rare occasion that it was backs to the walls for the Three Lions, John Terry threw himself in front of a shot, Glen Johnson repelled hopeful Slovenian crosses and David James in goal held everything. The Portsmouth keeper made his return to the side against Algeria and spent the whole game under the magnifying glass, fans willing him not to repeat Rob Green’s calamitous mistake. Against Les Fennecs James was assured and handled expertly, but this commanding display has strengthened his grasp on the number one jersey.
The win was all that mattered today but the performance may go some way to rekindling English belief that they can influence this World Cup in a positive manner. A second placed finish in Group C may have not been viewed too favourably on the eve of the tournament, however Capello’s men are through. Rooney’s rant was replaced by euphoria at the full-time whistle this time round but a win for Germany tonight in Johannesburg will reunite old rivals in the second round. England fans will be relieved at such a performance in the face of adversity, yet should Rooney prove his fitness, and carry his display into the week ahead, England will relish this clash. The key remains the pace that England operate at. Should they revert to the previous two matches then the one-paced, predictable style will not be enough. What was on show today, the urgency to retrieve the ball, the one-touch passing and a final ball- that often deserved a better finish- indicates that the Three Lions can take every positive from this significant win and channel it into transforming a bewildering start to this World Cup campaign into a success.