England secured their unbeaten record in 2023 as they finished their successful qualification campaign for the UEFA European Championship in Germany next year with an uninspired 1-1 draw with North Macedonia in Skopje on Monday night.
The Three Lions had already confirmed top spot in Group C while their opponents were out of the running, but it was the hosts who took a surprise lead as Enis Bardhi eventually converted after Rico Lewis was harshly penalised for handball.
Gareth Southgate’s side managed to draw level as a corner was bundled in Jani Atanasov for an own goal. England had won the reverse fixture 7-0 but weren’t anywhere near as creative or clinical at Tose Proeski Arena.
No winner was found but that mattered little to England at the top of the group, though the manner of their two performances in the November international break have not matched their lofty ambition of being the number one ranked team in the world.
How the game unfolded
England’s first game of the November international break had not inspired much excitement, with the Three Lions scrapping their way to a 2-0 win over Malta on Friday night.
Southgate’s side spluttered through the motions for most of the first half, going closest when Declan Rice drove into the box and hit the post, and looked unconvincing at the back. Harry Maguire survived a couple of scares in quick succession, giving the ball away and then colliding into Elif Elmas with no penalty awarded.
The breakthrough instead came for the hosts, who were gifted a penalty by an extremely contentious VAR call enforced by referee Filip Glova.
Debutant Lewis won a header but a flailing arm caught Bojan Miovski in the face behind him. Bardhi’s strike was well saved by Jordan Pickford but the Everton couldn’t keep out the rebound as North Macedonia took a shock lead.
Skilful dribbling from Phil Foden unlocked the door just before half time as Bukayo Saka teed up Manchester City’s Lewis, but the full-back’s low drive was well smothered by Stole Dimitrievski. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s 20-yard strike then brought another smart stop from the Rayo Vallecano goalkeeper before the half-time whistle rang.
That late pressure from the first 45 minutes looked to have paid off at the start of the second period when Jack Grealish stabbed in at the back post from Saka, but the winger’s celebrations were curtailed by a three-minute VAR check that ended in North Macedonia’s favour.
The deserved equaliser eventually came upon captain Harry Kane’s introduction from the bench. Foden’s inswinging corner reached the Bayern Munich striker’s head and took a heftier deflection off Jani Atanasov and bobbled in.
England struggled to click after the equaliser and weren’t helped by some more contentious refereeing that stunted their pressing game at points. Late substitutes Cole Palmer, Marcus Rashford and Kalvin Phillips arrived to add some spice to proceedings but no third goal came in the late stages.
Southgate’s side will head to Euro 2024 as one of the favourites but their last two outings have highlighted some fatigue and creativity issues that the manager will hope to address in March’s friendlies Brazil and Belgium next year.
GK: Jordan Pickford – 7/10 – Sprawled well to save the penalty but diverted it straight back to Bardhi. Made a handful of regulation saves.
RB: Kyle Walker – 6/10 – Showcased his superhuman pace to get himself out of trouble on occasion.
CB: Harry Maguire – 5/10 – Sloppy with some of his passing and survived a credible penalty appeal. Calmer in the second half.
CB: Marc Guehi – 5/10 – Steady enough without ever suggesting a complete aura of safety alongside Maguire.
LB: Rico Lewis – 6/10 – Very unfortunate to concede a penalty. Came infield to offer in possession and might have tested the goalkeeper more on another day with some decent shooting opportunities.
CM: Trent Alexander-Arnold- 5/10 – Not a very polished display, sometimes overrunning the ball when dribbling and not showing his full passing range.
CM: Declan Rice – 7/10 – Surged forward well and came close to opening the scoring. A hive of activity throughout the evening, winning the ball and recovering it frequently.
RW: Bukayo Saka – 6/10 – Floated around on the periphery and came alive on occasion, but didn’t always make the right decision in the final third.
AM: Phil Foden – 7/10 – Showed his elegance in possession and pulled out some nice long passes. Dangerous delivery led to Atanasov’s own goal.
LW: Jack Grealish – 7/10 – England’s brightest attacker in the first half, creating two chances and looking devilish with the ball at his feet.
ST: Ollie Watkins – 5/10 – A few ‘nearly’ moments during the first half, snatching at opportunities and just missing out on potential link-up opportunities.
SUB: Harry Kane (58′ for Watkins) – /10 – His presence seemed to immediately unnerve North Macedonia’s defence and led to the own goal.
SUB Kalvin Phillips (84′ for Alexander-Arnold) – N/A
SUB: Cole Palmer (84′ for Saka) – N/A
SUB: Marcus Rashford (84′ for Grealish) – N/A
Subs not used: Conor Gallagher, Jordan Henderson, Ezri Konsa, Fikayo Tomori, Aaron Ramsdale, Sam Johnstone
Gareth Southgate – 5/10 – For the second game in the space of a week, England looked tired and lacking in the final third. Plenty of that could be down to player workload, but Southgate will still be concerned at the level of his side compared to other nations who look sharper ahead of Euro 2024 next year.