Harry Kane comes to the rescue as England finally show some mettle
In some respects, Gareth Southgate might have been happier with the dramatic way England claimed a 2-2 draw with Scotland than a comfortable 3-0 victory.
In the days leading up to the game, when England's players and staff talked about what they were looking to do in the weeks and months ahead, a few themes emerged. One was Harry Kane's desire to get to the level of Cristiano Ronaldo; another the search for leadership throughout the squad; hope of well and truly flushing out the fetid memories of last summer's debacle against Iceland, a game when faced with pressure and adversity, the whole side froze.
Kane's injury-time equaliser at Hampden Park on Saturday did not solve any of those issues once and for all. But that one moment brought together several elements of the things Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland have been working on. A truly world-class player scores goals when his team needs them; the captain popped up in the dying seconds to snatch a result; having been leading after 86 minutes, only to go 2-1 down, England came back to salvage something.
One of the primary drawbacks of being an international manager is of course the time between games. Southgate has waited nearly three months since England's last fixture, before that the gap was five months, and England won't play again for another two and a half months. In those gaps, an international manager can come up with innumerable theories and solutions on paper to his side's problems, without really knowing if they work in practice. But now, Southgate will be able to point to Kane's goal as one way in which the leadership and mental fortitude he has been trying to work on manifested itself.
"The end was a significant moment," Southgate said. "The questions around this team centre on character, they centre on our ability to withstand events that go against you. We have to be a team that is never beaten. The clock may run out but you never stop. I didn't see anybody who sank to their knees."
One way to build the team up psychologically is through the methods Southgate has already tried: talking with the players to find out what they think has gone wrong in the past, stressing the importance of personal responsibility, even the army retreat the squad went on last week.
"The lads haven't just been running up hills all weekend," Holland said last week. "There's a huge mental aspect, working with an organisation like the Marines. 'What is pressure, how do we recognise it, what do we do about it?'"
Who knows whether the weekend spent with the Marines actually had any impact on Kane's late goal, but Southgate is at least thinking around the problems.
For Kane, the goal was significant for a number of reasons, not just that it was his first as England captain. On the most basic level, it was significant that he scored at all: that was his first international goal in over a year (although he has missed games through injury), and he spoke this week about how his tally for England isn't what it could be, particularly in comparison to his record with Spurs.
But it also meant something given how Kane had played for the preceding 92 minutes. The Tottenham striker had been significantly below-par, as had much of the team, but his poor play was particularly noticeable. Service to him was minimal, but he scuffed the few chances that did come his way: one a left-footed half-volley in the area, another a glancing header.
But then, at the time that mattered, Kane was there to score.
"You always get judged on the big games and the big moments," he said in the week. He was referring specifically to goals at tournaments, but the 93rd minute of a game against Scotland that England were losing probably qualifies as a "big moment" too. His late goal owed plenty to a brilliant cross by Raheem Sterling and some indeterminate goalkeeping by the constantly jittery Craig Gordon, but as Southgate noted after the game, Kane made his finish look easy.
The ball arrived at an awkward angle and height, but Kane watched the cross all the way, made space for himself in the area and contorted his body in such a way so as to be perfectly positioned to side-foot the volley home. "It is brilliant that in a pressure moment, he has executed a chance that was much harder than he made it look," Southgate said.
England's overall performance would have done little to make prospective future opponents particularly nervous. But if they are to improve under Southgate, to perhaps make some sort of impact at a major finals, then they need to learn to handle pressure, and have a player who's able to make match-changing contributions when they're needed.
Nobody should slap down their life savings on England winning next year's World Cup, but at least both of those things were in evidence on Saturday.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.