John Stones winced and raised a hand in apology. It was a horror moment and the central defender could not hide, a lapse that presented Poland with an equaliser to shock England and, briefly, spark dark thoughts. Stones believed he had the time to step out with the ball from the edge of his penalty area, only he did not. He was robbed by Jakub Moder and, seconds later, the Poland midfielder had blasted a shot past Nick Pope.
Stones did not hide. He and England shook their heads clear and pushed again, keen to rekindle the memory of an excellent first-half performance in which Harry Kane had scored from the penalty spot and Mason Mount, Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling sparkled in Gareth Southgate’s 4-3-3 formation.
It was a testament to Stones’s character, which had helped him to recover from a similar lapse in the Nations League semi-final defeat against the Netherlands in June 2019 and a long spell away from the international scene, that he was central to the late goal that swung the tie back in England’s favour.
Stones leapt with tremendous athleticism at the far post to head a Foden corner back down and across and there was Harry Maguire to pivot and smash a shot through the hands of Wojciech Szczesny and into the roof of the net. England could exhale. There would be no damage to their hopes of World Cup qualification here.
Southgate’s starting system fired debate and possibility. Despite his talk of flexibility, he was expected to revert to his three-man defence, to what he knows best, to what gives him security. It was one thing to use a back four against San Marino and Albania. Against Poland, it would be different. And yet it was not. This was Gareth The Bold – a creature that some fans feared was extinct.
England dominated possession from the outset and took control with the penalty – one that confirms the feeling defenders cannot afford to make any sort of contact inside the area. Phil Foden won the ball and fed Sterling, whose acceleration was too hot for Poland to handle. Having surged away from Grzegorz Krychowiak, he saw Michal Helik go to ground close to the byline in order to block the anticipated cross. Sterling slowed down, felt Helik’s trailing leg catch him and went down. From Poland’s point of view, it was soft. Kane clipped the kick up the middle into the top of the net.
Mount will say the left of a midfield three is his favourite position and he was prominent during a pleasing first-half England performance. His passing was quick and incisive, whether to release Ben Chilwell on the overlap from left-back or to set Sterling tearing through on 28 minutes after a give-and-go with Kane. Sterling tried to usher in Foden with a square pass only for Jan Bednarek to throw himself into a block. If he had his time again, Sterling would have shot.
Sterling was a menace off the left, his stand-out moment coming when he tricked past three red shirts inside the area but not a fourth. He forced defenders onto the back foot, making them uncomfortable, making things happen. They dared not touch him. Nor could they live with him for pace.
Foden, too, was heavily involved from the right, his touch and balance a delight. He headed over in the early running and it was his flick from a Mount pass that gave Kane a sight of goal in the 31st minute. Kane unloaded a low shot that Szczesny did well to turn away.
It was the Poland manager, Paulo Sousa, who had started with the third centre-half, which was a surprise, although not as big a surprise as his decision to prefer Karol Swiderski to Arkadiusz Milik up front. The visitors offered nothing as an attacking threat in the first 45 minutes. It was easy to say that they missed their injured talisman, Robert Lewandowski, but they had to do more.
Sousa replaced Swiderski with Milik at half-time and must have told his players to carry greater fight. Milik was booked within 30 seconds for leaving his foot in on Kane. Ten minutes later, Sousa swapped a centre-half, Helik, for a winger, Kamil Jozwiak, and went to 4-4-2. And, moments later, Poland were level.
Stones had suffered a crossed wire with Pope on 54 minutes, as he tried to shepherd a ball back to him under pressure from Krzysztof Piatek. The Poland striker was penalised for a foul. Now, Stones wanted too much time after Pope had rolled a ball out to him, his second touch being particularly heavy and Moder was onto him in a flash, winning the ball and then getting it back from Milik. Moder lifted a cool finish past Pope and the game had been turned on its head.
England wobbled and Milik lined up a knock-out blow only to loop a header wide. And yet back came Southgate’s team. Foden went close, Mount flickered and there, at the end, was Stones to Maguire.