Sterling the star as England shape up well for World Cup

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Gareth Southgate's plans are coming together nicely as a controlled performance following an admittedly iffy start brought encouragement against Italy

German referee Deniz Aytekin will find himself at the centre of a media storm no doubt as his VAR-assisted decision to award a late penalty against James Tarkowski for a foul on Federico Chiesa was far from conclusive. It got the Wembley crowd fired up at least for the last few minutes on a night when they saw some good football but also entertained themselves with the lights from their smartphones and a few Mexican Waves.

It might take them a bit of time here to get used to seeing an England team pushing and probing and not getting the ball forward at the first opportunity. But they should stick with it because the Three Lions are going somewhere, this draw notwithstanding.

Maybe if Ciro Immobile hadn’t come out so cold then we would be having a very different conversation. The Italy front man missed three chances in the opening few minutes, letting England off the hook early on at Wembley. And although Italy grabbed their technologically-aided spot kick late on, that shouldn't detract from the positives we saw from England in between. 

The home side and John Stones in particular were guilty of sloppy mistakes right at the outset. This ground had scarcely filled up by the time Immobile sprung an ordinary offside trap before squandering in front of Jack Butland. Stones was overconfident moments later as he attempted to round the forward instead of passing the ball out. Again, the Lazio striker was charitable.

By the time he missed his third chance, well, England were well behind on points. Their attempts to construct patient attacks were being thwarted. When Butland opted to go long, he surrendered possession too easily and allowed Italy to build the move that led to Immobile heading over.

But England survived. There was little in the way of panic. Instead there was the same steadfast belief that their methods would see them right in the end. There are no doubt kinks to iron out. For example if Butland or debutant Tarkowski fancy themselves as starters in Russia they will need to get up to speed with keeping the ball better.

But there is the quality within the ranks to play the football favoured by Gareth Southgate and the much vaunted England “DNA” document. It calls for patience in possession and a focus on the right ball. There are enough players from top English clubs to make that happen.

Raheem Sterling is operating a more central role for country than club. The Manchester City man has been bestowed playmaking duties and he is showing good instincts in varying his movements between stopping short and opting to run in behind. As a ball-carrier, he will have few equals at the World Cup.

Ciro Immobile England Italy

His alertness to Jesse Lingard’s mugging of Marco Parolo created the opener. Twice the Italian midfielder tried to foul the No.10 before ultimately succeeding in his crude aim just outside the box. Lingard’s quick thinking put Jamie Vardy in one on one with Gianluigi Donnarumma and he made no mistake.

A couple of minutes beforehand the Leicester striker had a similar opportunity from a Sterling pass but couldn’t make it count. He wasn’t long in learning. He provides a different kind of option with Harry Kane unavailable. When he comes back into the reckoning, Vardy will probably be adjusting to life back on the bench but it’s nice for Southgate to have the choice.

On this evidence he is unlikely to pair them together as his preferred system presently has call for only one striker down the middle and Southgate has demonstrated already that he won’t simply just cram in as many names as he can. There is a clear strategy to follow and these players, suddenly assertive and appearing to have discovered some confidence in the England shirt, are showing some promise within it.

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Jamie Vardy England

It’s like we’re looking at England with new eyes and seeing these Tottenham, Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool players doing what they usually do quite well for their clubs. They are going between two markers to show for the ball. They are dropping short for easy passes even if it means taking a little pressure from behind. They are demonstrating confidence in possession and the willingness to take the ball on and look after it.

There is a freshness about them and a self-belief that comes with good results – albeit in friendlies – against teams like Germany, BrazilNetherlands and here against the Italians. Nobody is about to mistake this side for World Cup winners-in-waiting but every time we get a look at Southgate’s England it looks like a step in the right direction, VAR or not.