England vs Iceland

England ground out a dramatic 1-0 win in Iceland to open Nations League play courtesy of an injury time penalty from Raheem Sterling.  There was still time after Sterling’s strike for Iceland to win and miss a penalty, meaning this win came with a good slice of luck involved for the Three Lions.  Here, we look at some good and bad things England coach Gareth Southgate can take from the game, as well as some observations on a resilient Iceland team.

You can find a full game report at the BBC website here.



While it is certainly true that England are not in a position to call this result in isolation a big success, particularly given Iceland were missing a number of starters.  The fact is that when the clock hit the 70 minute mark, with the game tied at 0-0 and Kyle Walker walking off the field red carded, England were in a very tough spot on the road here.

The mindset of dominating possession and pushing for a goal all of a sudden shifted to having to close the game out a man down and in some ways a draw from there would have been a positive.  To keep the upper hand during large spells of the game and net a late winner will boost the confidence and unity of Southgate’s team coming through a tough situation on the road.


Debuts were handed to Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood by Southgate during this game, with Foden starting in central midfield and Greenwood coming off the bench late to replace Harry Kane.

Danny Ings received his 2nd cap as he stakes his claim to being #2 on England’s depth chart at center forward behind World Cup Golden Boot winner Kane.  Southampton midfielder James Ward-Prowse started alongside Foden in central midfield for what was only his 3rd cap.

It was notable that in the central midfield department, Declan Rice, Foden and Ward-Prowse came into this game with 9 caps combined.  For perspective, that is a figure which was matched by the career total of 21 year old Trent Alexander-Arnold alone.  To really exaggerate the point, Iceland’s starting goalkeeper (Hannes Halldorsson) and center back pairing (Kari Arnason and Sverrir Ingason), who their impressive performance was built around, had a combined total of 184 caps between them. 


Sterling’s England career has not been without criticism, decried in his early games by many fans for lacking “end product,” and left out of the team after clashing with Joe Gomez in training camp last November, Sterling is currently riding a hot streak for the Three Lions.  The high pressure penalty converted to give England three points here was his 11th goal in his last 12 games for the national team.



As exciting and promising as players like Foden and Ward-Prowse are, their lack of experience showed through and England did not play well in this department.  

Throughout the first half when England were in possession, Iceland marked the front three and had numbers behind the ball.  England rarely found space between Icelandic lines to play in pockets, and as a result often played more direct balls forward to tightly marked front three players.

In this example, Foden has come deep to receive the ball inside the center circle with no real options to break Icelandic lines beyond a direct ball forward.

It was without doubt an impressive performance by the Iceland defensive line, but it could have been made a lot more difficult for the central defensive pairing of Arnason and Ingason had they had times where there was grey area as to who was marking midfielders floating in spaces in front of them, a challenge they did not have to deal with much.

The clip below shows left back Kieran Trippier receiving the ball with no central midfield options to play forward, and forced to play laterally.  This was a scenario that played out time and again, with more creative movement form England needed to avoid the scenario of accumulating possession without penetration.

It is often the way in the modern game that a performance such as this from Iceland is dismissed as negative and “parking the bus,” but the fact is the responsibility to break down such a tactic lies with the team in possession.  

In the clip below, England center back Dier has enough room due to Iceland’s low pressure to drive with the ball, commit a player and play in behind.  Instead, England play a series of passes either laterally or to central midfielders facing their own goal who play it back.  Passages of play like this do serve the purpose of establishing the upper hand in terms of the flow of the game, but without penetration a good defensive team can apply mental pressure as the game gets into the late stages scoreless, as was the case here;

In a similar scenario here, Dier has space and plays a pass that leads to an unnecessary turnover, one that is punished by a sharp counterattack from Iceland forward Albert Gudmundsson.  Walker ends up dragging down the forward and picking up a yellow card that would become costly for England later in the game.

The audio on the clip below adds an extra wrinkle, where England assistant coach Steve Holland can clearly be heard urging goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to play the ball into a “4v2” numbers up scenario for England.  Despite Pickford finding this overload, England yet again kept the ball comfortably without showing any real ability to penetrate or break Icelandic lines.

There were a couple of instances in the game where Sterling managed to get the ball in dangerous areas such as this clip below.  A question worth asking is in a play like this did the lack of a natural left back hurt England. Right back Trippier was selected and did not overlap in this clip when left winger Sterling cut inside, not doing so allowed the Icelandic back four to stay compact as opposed to Trippier dragging the right back wide to mark.  This would have created bigger seams and likely more room for Kane to operate between defenders had it been done consistently throughout the game.

After this performance, the importance of Jordan Henderson shone through and playmakers such as Jack Grealish, Dele Alli and Mason Mount will all see an opportunity to break in as England’s playmaker in chief for EURO 2021.


As discussed above one way to break down Iceland would have been players receiving the ball in spaces that dragged Icelandic defenders high and into uncomfortable positions.  Another obvious way to deal with an opponent like this is to penetrate off the dribble, something England did not do well enough.

According to WyScout data, winger Jadon Sancho completed only 1 successful dribble during the game, one that actually created a chance that Rice missed from 5 yards out.  Kane also had a quiet game as he was marshalled tightly by Arnason and Ingason, completing 1 dribble and getting away 2 shots over the 90 minutes.


Veteran fullback Walker has let his team down of late, first making the news by breaking government lockdown to host a party that included sex workers in attendance at the event.  To some, it is a surprise he started this game given the swift postgame discipline administered to Foden and Greenwood for a similar offense in the team hotel.

Under that spotlight, Walker opened himself to further criticism by putting his team in a tough position when dismissed for a reckless and unnecessary tackle that drew a second yellow card. With these two incidents so close together, and the emergence of Liverpool superstar Alexander-Arnold at right back, we may be witnessing the latter stages of Walker’s England career.


1 – DEPTH 

Iceland coach Erik Hamren came into this game with a depleted squad after the withdrawal of a number of key players including Premier League duo Gylfi Sigurdsson (Everton) and Johan Berg Gudmundsson (Burnley).

Missing a number of starters, Hamren’s team were a missed penalty away from a point in their opening game, and a number of players will have laid claim to a place for the remainder of this campaign, as well as the upcoming EURO 2021 playoff against Romania.


Goalkeeper Halldorsson communicated well and led his backline as Iceland came within minutes of achieving a clean sheet against a potent England front line that scored 37 goals over their 8 game EURO 2021 qualifying campaign.

The central defensive pair of Arnason and Ingason did well to shut down Tottenham Hotspur star Kane, with Ingason unfortunate to receive an injury time red card for blocking a shot with his arm to concede the decisive penalty.


Veteran midfielder Bjarnason is no stranger to goals against big name opponents, having scored against Portugal and France in EURO 2016. He had a huge chance to gain a point for his team and add England to that list of victims, but his last gasp miss will be a tough pill to swallow for the Brescia player.


90+1’ ENG Raheem Sterling PK 0-1


#7 LM Raheem Sterling (England) – A late penalty took all three points for the Three Lions, and Sterling was a leading light as England huffed and puffed to break down the stubborn Icelandic team. Sent in a pinpoint cross to Kane early that saw a goal wrongly disallowed.



3:  CD Kari Arnason – The captain harried and hassled Kane, while turning England attacks away time and again before a brave effort fell just short courtesy of Sterling’s last gasp winner.

2:  CF Albert Gudmundsson – Iceland’s primary attacking threat who provided spark with very limited service.  Showcased his pace and direct ability drawing a first half foul from Walker that saw the defender booked and won a dangerous free kick for his team.

1:  CD Sverrir Ingason – Produced a tough tackling performance that stifled England’s star laden front three, even his red card showed a fighting spirit as he threw himself in front of a goalbound shot from Sterling.


3:  LM Raheem Sterling – Man of the Match.

2:  RM Jadon Sancho – Carved out a big chance for RIce with a drive to the byline and cutback, probed away as England looked to break the Icelandic wall.

1:  GK Jordan Pickford – Stood up well to a number of Iceland set plays and was sharp in distribution.


ENG:  Pickford, Trippier, Dier, Gomez, Walker, Rice, Foden (Ings), Ward-Prowse, Sterling, Sancho (Alexander-Arnold), Kane (Greenwood).

ICE:  Halldorsson, Magnusson, Arnason, Ingason, Hermannsson, Thorsteinsson (Sigurdsson), Palsson, Bjarnason, Traustason (Hallfredsson), Bodvarsson (Fridjonsson), Gudmundsson.


Highlights of the game can be found on the England YouTube page here.

About the Author

Picture of Stewart Flaherty

Stewart Flaherty

Stewart is a native of Middlesbrough, England, and is a graduate of Loughborough University with a master's degree in sport psychology. Stewart has coached at both USL2 and the elite level of youth football in the USA, alongside building an extensive career in college soccer and currently works with a NCAA Division 1 Men's soccer program.

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