Two winners and three losers as Harry Kane deputy flops but Arsenal star shines for England
NORTH MACEDONIA 1-1 ENGLAND: Gareth Southgate's side responded to their half-time deficit as they remained unbeaten during 2023 as Harry Kane was called upon to rescue the Three Lions
England have largely underwhelmed over the past four days with their draw in Macedonia concluding an international period that has perhaps asked more questions than it's answered.
The stalemate in Skopje comes after they meandered past Malta on Friday night at Wembley with the Three Lions unable to overcome their half-time deficit. England kept possession well, but there was a lack of cutting edge about them in the final third on Monday night.
The Three Lions took to the pitch with Rico Lewis making his debut at the Toše Proeski Arena. The Manchester City star is the latest youngster to be given an opportunity, just days after his ex-team-mate Cole Palmer was rewarded for his early season form. It was Lewis though who gave away a first-half penalty, albeit one that looked soft. Enis Bardhi missed from 12 yards but hammered home the rebound as a flat looking England trudged off at the interval.
There was no Jude Bellingham to look to. Harry Kane found himself on the bench initially. England were looking to go unbeaten during the calendar year and their second 45 minutes showed slightly more promise with Jack Grealish seeing a goal ruled out for offside.
Kane's introduction just before the hour had the desired affect as England levelled via an own goal, but by no means did they grab control of the contest with Macedonia holding their own. Southgate rung the changes late on in search of a winner, but the Three Lions had to settle with a point against a team currently ranked 62 places below them in the world rankings.
Rice has claimed that he felt the pressure of being a £105million player after his summer move. If that is how he felt, he didn't show and so rarely does.
The Arsenal midfielder is the most assuring presence available to Southgate and his qualities do allow the England boss to do away with the two midfield anchors. Rice is capable of doing the job of two men such is his reading of the game.
He appears one of the few men nailed on to start in England's opening game next summer yet continues to produce stellar displays. An evolution in his game, which we've seen at the Emirates, is Rice's new found ambition in the final third.
Where once upon a time he'd pass, now he takes the shot on and his first-half effort cannoned of the post, but it was the closest England had come. That deeper threat is another string to the team's bow.
Some argue that he's slightly plateaued, others suggest that a lack of guaranteed game time could prove his undoing. Whatever they say, Phil Foden isn't listening. The City star was charged with being the team's chief playmaker in Skopje and more than excelled.
Jude Bellingham is, without a doubt, the darling of English football at the moment. Taking centre stage at arguably Europe's biggest club. In his absence though Foden shone and stood out more than he already does.
Foden took up some excellent positions, scanning and moving to find the space with his clever little touches keeping the England game moving. It seems laughable, on this display, that his starting spot isn't guaranteed.
The Liverpool star, who has previously been part of the internal right-back battle, is now being listed by Southgate as a midfielder. Whilst that gives the England boss less questions to field every time he names a squad, it doesn't mean that Alexander-Arnold isn't still operating in a position where he has to show his point of difference.
That could be his downfall if he is seeking a starting berth come Euro 2024 next summer. He is by no means letting the side down but, as was the case against Macedonia, he isn't offering anything his England colleagues can't. Frustration mounted in the second-half and a moment of dissent earned him a yellow card.
In a much changed midfield he started alongside Declan Rice but had no more influence that someone like Bellingham or James Maddison. That could prove his undoing - no what he can't do - but more what his team-mates can do in roles they are accustomed to playing week in, week out.
England's Mr Divisive. Some may argue it doesn't matter if he wins or loses such is Southgate's faith in the Manchester United man. His distribution continued to put the visitors under unnecessary pressure in their own half.
Numerous times he attempted to switch the play with a long ball, only to give possession away. Maguire can also count himself lucky he didn't add to his highlight reel of defensive clangers that led to goals or penalties with a lunge, which turned into a push, somehow not being given as a spot kick.
The 30-year-old has enjoyed more game time in recent months than he's had over the past year, but it doesn't appear to have made him look any more sharp than he usually is in an England shirt.
The window of opportunity for England's No 9s who aren't called Harry Kane are so small. Watkins was allowed to lead the line and the Aston Villa man has notched on previous outings, but this time round certainly didn't make his mark.
Watkins missed a golden opportunity midway through the first-half when his header was mistimed. His hold-up player will have done little to give Southgate a selection headache. The Villa man offers a different dynamic to Kane, who can play the role of a 10.
Instead Watkins brings more of a physical presence with his athleticism a point of different from the Bayern Munich man. But the frustration will be, had Kane been playing, you got the sense England wouldn't have needed to come from behind. He was withdrawn just before the hour with Kane coming on and within seconds the country's greatest marksman showed his hunger and desire by pressuring the Macedonia defence, forcing an own goal.
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