Desperate to right the wrongs of their flat and vapid victory over Malta on Friday, England were once again uninspiring in Skopje.
Gareth Southgate said on Sunday that the manner in which his side have strolled through Euro 2024 qualification mattered little now, and that they must look forward to what is ahead of them, and to this meeting with North Macedonia.
He also felt he and his players’ attention this week had been too much on Euro 2024 and not enough on the game ahead of them. Judging by the performance of his side at the Tose Proeski Arena, they underestimated their opponents and paid for it.
Sure, the second-half own goal scored by Jani Anatasov saved them from a first qualification defeat since October 2019. But no matter how little this dead-rubber mattered, it is still the case that England play only a handful of matches a year.
Southgate knows they must make each one count. For the second time in four days, they didn’t.
The gravely nature of the Tose Proeski Arena’s turf — relaid just six weeks ago — added to the challenge for England, Declan Rice and others miscontrolling as the ball skipped rapidly off the surface.
But England should, and will, look more at themselves than at external factors when assessing why their year ended in a whimper.
Trent Alexander-Arnold operated as a deep-lying midfielder but saw the ball much less than at Wembley on Friday, while Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka were unable to rise to the challenge posed by the North Macedonian defenders, who left a number of rather brutal and very late challenges on the pair. They could not overcome the adversity.
High up the desperately short list of positives on the night for England was Rico Lewis’s debut. Southgate’s attempted solution in a left-back position where England are in injury crisis, the Manchester City teenager was bright and hard-working, winning the ball back when others lost it.
Unfortunate for him and for England was that he was adjudged to have elbowed Bojan Miovski in the first half. Most baffling was how long VAR took so long to come to the wrong conclusion. It was his hand, not his elbow, which struck the striker.
Their complaints in vain, England hoped Jordan Pickford could deliver the goods, and he did — until Enis Bardhi thumped home the rebound after the Everton goalkeeper saved his penalty.
Grealish struck just two minutes after the break, but his goal was short-lived as VAR chalked it off, rightly, for offside. It was one of those nights for England. Atanasov saved Southgate’s side from defeat, but save them from an embarrassing night.
They face Brazil next, in March. They must find gears they never reached this week.