You can argue that England stuttered here in Poland, as they took on Ukraine, that a step backwards was taken from the slick, stylish football played in Qatar and since. You could dissect this performance and ponder why a team comprised of some of the best young players in world football never hit their stride. And you could puncture all talk of winning the Euros and point out that playing like this, they definitely won’t.
But that would be almost to miss the point and not just because England’s qualification for Euro 2024 is more or less guaranteed by wins over Italy and Ukraine last season. No, it was because to be in Wroclaw. southern Poland on Saturday night, more than three hundred miles from the border where war is a daily act of perseverance and faith, was to be present at a rallying cry for a nation holding the line for rules-based democracies in an existential fight.
This was a bravura performance from Ukraine, one greeted with joyous celebration at the final whistle. It was both a moment of escapism and an act of defiance, for a national team to be here at all and yet also playing so well, showing the world the mere fact that Ukraine exists, continues to fight and can thrive.
‘We understand what we’re doing, our responsibility to our country,’ said Sergey Rebrov, the former Tottenham and West Ham player and Ukraine coach afterwards. He looked immensely proud of what had been achieved. ‘We talk a lot to the players about giving emotion to the country and today they did that.’ They did indeed.
This being competitive sport, England would have had no issue with spoiling the mood. At the end, Harry Kane would query the referee as to whether the full four minutes of injury time had been played. He wanted the win. Yet it would have been churlish to win. And in reality, England didn’t deserve that.
The match was played out in front of a good-natured, partisan crowd at the Tarczyński Arena in Wroclaw, south-west Poland
Ukraine talisman Oleksandr Zinchenko (centre) scored the opening goal after 26 minutes following a brilliant counter-attack
Manchester City defender Kyle Walker (right) scored the equaliser for England just four minutes before half-time in Wroclaw
‘Most of our attacking play wasn’t at the level that we would have hoped it to be,’ reflected Southgate in his under-stated way. ‘I wouldn’t expect that to happen again,’ he added, with a calm of polite menace. No-one emerged with plaudits here, other than captain Kane – busy throughout, dropping ever deeper, to create something, anything. And the incredible Kyle Walker, not just a superb right back, perhaps the best we’ve seen in England, but now a goal-scorer too.
Match Facts: Ukraine 1-1 England in Wroclaw
Ukraine (4-3-3): Bushchan; Konoplia, Zabarnyi, Matviyenko, Mykolenko; Sudakov (Sydorchuk), Stepanenko, Zinchenko (Buyalskyi 76′); Tsyhankov, Yaremchuk (Dovbyk 65), Mudryk (Nazaryna 90).
Substitutes not used: Trubin, Lunin; Mykhaylichenko, Kryvtsov, Popov, Karavayev, Yarmolenko, Vanat.
Goals: Zinchenko 26.
Yellow cards: Stepanenko 22, Yaremchuk 42.
Manager: Serhiy Rebrov.
England (4-3-3): Pickford; Walker, Guehi, Maguire, Chilwell; Henderson, Rice, Bellingham (Foden 65); Saka (Gallagher 86), Kane, Maddison (Rashford 65).
Substitutes not used: Johnstone, Ramsdale; Trippier, Colwill, Tomori, Dunk, Phillips, Eze, Wilson.
Goals: Walker 41.
Yellow cards: Maddison 34, Maguire 86.
Manager: Gareth Southgate.
Referee: Georgi Kabakov.
They were almost incidentals. As political theatre, there cannot have been many football matches like this in recent history. More than 40,000 Ukrainian exiles packed this stadium, the still-ferocious, late-summer evening sun bathing the glorious colour show of thousands of yellow and blue flags with serene light as the roar of the solemn Ukrainian anthem filled the stadium, their players, draped in their own individual Ukraine flags. It was to a serene moment which felt genuinely significant for a nation.
And that was nothing compared to the cacophony of noise that greeted any Ukrainian attack. Not that there were many early on, as Rebrov conceded 84 per cent possession to England. This was to be a defensive operation. Yet for all their domination, England looked ever so ponderous, going this way and that without creating a decent chance. And the patriotic fervour was about to be amplified tenfold when Oleksandr Zinchenko opened the scoring.
As the Arsenal player goofed in front of the TV camera, his smile stretching as broad as physically possible, you couldn’t help but recall the angst he has expressed, the displaced guilt of knowing that he is more good to his nation as the superb international ambassador he is, rather than on the front line. This was a moment of joy he deserved.
As such, it seemed banal to analyse it in football terms and yet for England there was much to admonish. Jordan Henderson seemed to allow ample space for the cross field ball to be played Viktor Tsygankov. James Maddison was absent, meaning Ben Chilwell was left looking foolish, chasing backwards as Tsygankov slipped the ball to Yukhym Konoplya.
The full back cut it back and neither Declan Rice, who missed it , nor Harry Maguire and Marc Guehi, who were rooted motionless next to each, could cut it out. To cap it all, no one tracked Zinchenko, who nonetheless finished well. Still, it was a case of put the champagne of ice and cancel the open top bus tour: this kind of defending does not win major tournaments.
Rattled, England responded. Kane had spent the half dropping deeper and deeper in search of some ball. At times, that can be frustrating, such as when he fed Henderson, who made a hash of the chance, opting to pass, when it needed a natural finisher in that position. But it all came good on 42 minutes.
Picking the ball up so deep that were but two defenders stationed behind him, Kane surveyed his options and like a latter-day David Beckham, swept a pass of exquisite accuracy into the path of Kyle Walker. ‘Occasionally we were coming to deep outside of the block, but when you do that, if you’ve got players with that range of passing, then it’s an alternative way of breaking them down,’ said Southgate. ‘He’s got outstanding vision but also technical quality to make those passes.’
Walker, who has never previously scored for England before, still had considerable work to do, using his first touch to direct the ball goal-wards. With the confidence of an experienced finisher, he gave keeper Georgiy Buschan the eyes, feinting to go one way before prodding the ball inside him in the opposite direction. It was a sublime goal.
There were angry recriminations in the England defence after they allowed the hosts to score with their first shot of the match
Arsenal star and national talisman Zinchenko held his hand to his ear and smiled into the cameras before showing a love heart
Home fans erupted with joy after Zinchenko found the net against the run of play to put Serhiy Rebrov’s men ahead in Poland
It was the 33-year-old’s first goal at international level in his 77 caps and he celebrated wildly with a roar and a fist-pump
He was mobbed by team-mates after becoming the second-oldest player to score his first goal for England after Jimmy Moore
And England looked a little more at it come the second half. This was possession with intent rather than the dreary sideway passing of the first half. Maguire headed over from a well worked free kick routine and then should have done better when a Maddison corner landed at his feet Bukayo Saka did his trademark cut inside and then rattled a shot on to the cross bar.
Still, on 65 minutes Gareth Southgate withdrew Maddison and Jude Bellingham. The latter had been all honest intent with no real impact. Certainly, this wasn’t the dominant performance Real Madrid fans gave become accustomed to in recent weeks. Phil Foden was trusted to play centrally, when usually Southgate prefers him wide and Marcus Rashford came on. Kane was buzzing all round, Declan Rice driving the midfield. Rashford looked dangerous, but few of the others did. Big names that have enlightened Madrid, Manchester and London dimmed a little here.
As the half progressed to its finale, the chances waned. The scrap ends of a free kick saw Maguire slide in on keeper Buschan in an attempt to get on the end of a cross from close range on 83 minutes. There wasn’t much else for England.
The maximum excitement came from the standing ovation given Zinchenko when he came off on 76 minutes. And, of course, the eruption of noise on the final whistle. Ukraine had made their point. And so much more.
A free kick saw Maguire slide in on keeper Bushchan in an attempt to get on the end of a cross but that was the last chance
Dejected England captain Harry Kane showed frustration at the end of the evening but the Three Lions did not deserve to win