Gareth Southgate reacted with disdain on Monday when asked about the prospect of England decelerating here in Skopje.
You can only imagine then what he thought about this. Southgate required the cavalry as England found themselves in rather embarrassing hole.
They delivered, to an extent – Harry Kane was on the pitch 40 seconds before forcing Jani Atanasov into heading past his own goalkeeper to level for England after a first-half to forget.
But this was far from adequate for an England side, who finish their qualification campaign undefeated.
With England’s path to Euro 2024 as group winners already assured, there was very little jeopardy to inspire the players here.
England failed to end their qualifying campaign on a high as they drew with North Macedonia
Harry Kane came off the bench to help force an equaliser but England couldn’t find a winner
Gareth Southgate’s men ended still ended their campaign undefeated and will be in Pot 1
But if Southgate stays true to his word, he won’t accept that as an excuse following this uninspiring display.
Insipid at best. They’ll need to do much better than this if they are to pull up any trees in Germany next summer.
Ahead of kick-off the headline news was Kyle Walker’s promotion to captain for the first time. Thoroughly deserved.
If anyone typifies the sort of attitude Southgate demands, it’s Walker. From the brink of international retirement to one of England’s most important players and skipper. That’s some turnaround.
The sight of the illiumnious armband wrapped proudly around Walker’s left arm meant Harry Kane was rested in a competitive international for the first time since 2021
Rico Lewis was extremely unfortunate to give away a penalty on his international debut
The 18-year-old was adjudged to have committed a foul as he headed the ball out of danger
It was a poignant night too for Manchester City’s fearless academy graduate Rico Lewis, who was handed his full England debut in left-back/midfield hybrid role that has become all the rage nowadays.
Lewis squandered England’s first opportunity in the fourth minute – blazing over the bar after the home side blundered in clearing a corner.
Much of the first half resembled an attack versus defence training passage. England probing, keeping the ball efficiently as they sought to breakdown North Macedonia’s jam-packed defence.
England twice went close within the space of a minute; first Declan Rice’s drilled effort from the edge of the box struck Stole Dimitrievski’s post in the 14th minute before Ollie Watkins, in the team instead of Kane, horribly mistimed a free header from Phil Foden’s cross.
Yet, despite their dominance in terms of possession England’s start lacked verve and intent – the sort of deficiencies Southgate insisted he wouldn’t accept ahead of kick-off.
Harry Maguire’s dreadful mistake in the 22nd minute nearly gifted North Macedonia a shock lead but Eljif Elmas failed to take advantage before England survived a nervy penalty call after the Manchester United defender tried to atone for his original error.
Southgate rose from his chair in the away dugout to survey the scene in the 26th minute. This wasn’t what he’d ordered following Friday’s dull 2-0 win over Malta.
Lewis was enjoying a comfortable to life as an England football and Foden impressed in cameos.
But this was more passive than assertive. It wasn’t that anyone was playing particularly poorly but rather with no gusto or swagger.
So you could predict what was coming. And the moment North Macedonians could dreamt of arrived in the final five minutes of the first half.
Inevitably VAR was involved. The incident that eventually led to Filip Glova pointing to the spot appeared harsh on Lewis, who caught Bojan Miovski in the face with an arm as he leapt to clear.
The No 9 collapsed to the floor, albeit rather theatrically. The Slovakian official decided there was enough contact to award the penalty after inspecting his screen.
The stadium and home players were jubilant, England’s players stood perplexed.
At second glance, the decision appeared harsh. There was no intent from Lewis whatsoever. But who knows nowadays.
The drama wasn’t over. As a hush fell over the Tose Proeski Stadium in anticipation of the frenzy to follow, the home supporters didn’t count on Jordan Pickford’s abilities from the spot.
England’s No 1 saved Enis Bardhi’s penalty to become the first England keeper to save from the spot in 10 years.
But there was nothing Pickford could do about Bardhi’s follow-up as the stadium erupted. What a moment for them.
A big moment for England, too. But for different reasons.
They mustered a response, Lewis forcing Dimitrievski into a comfort save with England’s first shot on target in injury time before a subdued Trent Alexander-Arnold forced the home keeper into a another stop before the whistle.
The half ended in angry circumstances as both sides clashed after Dimitrievski confronted a clearly hurt Maguire as he laid in pain on the deck following a blow to the head.
VAR intervened to England’s detriment again in the 47th minute when Jack Grealish saw his close range effort ruled out.
But finally there was positivity, at least in terms of providing a threat. The sight of Kane getting stripped and ready to come on in place of the ineffective Watkins the 58th minute was reason for further hope.
And England were level within a minute of the captain coming on after Atanasov mistimed his header, under duress from Kane, beyond Dimitrievski to score the 200th goal of Southgate’s reign.
Yet the improvements in England’s performance were marginal. There was an urgency, but yet again very little penetration.
Southgate sent on Marcus Rashford, Cole Palmer and Kalvin Phillips for the final six minutes but it made no difference. More questions than answers for England.
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