Joe Hart was England's hero as the Three Lions ran to a 0-0 stalemate in their trip to Slovenia on Tuesday, maintaining caretaker manager Gareth Southgate's unbeaten record in 2018 World Cup qualifying.
Captain Wayne Rooney made a 15-minute cameo off the bench in Ljubljana, and Manchester City goalkeeper Hart—currently on loan with Serie A outfit Torino—was an unlikely talisman for the visiting side.
Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Eric Dier deputised for Rooney in the middle alongside captain Jordan Henderson, but the new-look Three Lions still struggled going forward without their veteran leader.
England remain two points clear at the summit of Group F despite dropping their first points of the campaign, but the Guardian's Jamie Jackson didn't spare any characters in detailing the standard of their display:
jamie jackson @JamieJackson___
This has been average... which is England...2016-10-11 20:32:24
With Rooney out of the starting XI, this was Dier's chance to prove he could be the alternative selection in midfield who would finally put an end to England's conundrum, but he hardly got off to a confident start.
Just nine minutes in, the Tottenham anchor played a crucial role in giving the ball away and offering Slovenia a chance that saw Jasmin Kurtic hit the post. The Three Lions were lucky to remain level, per BBC 5 live Sport:
BBC 5 live Sport @5liveSport
"A real let-off for England" Dier's backpass almost results in a goal, then Kurtic hits the post. 📻 https://t.co/NI1sjtGRxI #SLOENG https://t.co/SjJZymU51i2016-10-11 19:02:39
Possession might have weighed in favour of the visiting team, but it seemed as though Southgate's engine room was rumbled any time the hosts applied the slightest force in pressure.
The Guardian's Michael Cox agreed a midfield tandem of Henderson and Dier wasn't performing exactly to specification and was particularly limited in pressing forward with the ball:
Michael Cox @Zonal_Marking
Understandable that England want to guard against the counter, but with Dier in the side, Henderson can surely push forward more than this.2016-10-11 19:08:46
England weren't without their own pressure on goal, however, and Gary Cahill came close to scoring the opener from a Henderson free-kick, only for Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak to hoover up his attempt.
Right-back Kyle Walker was also off target with a couple of miscued crosses from the flank, and Match of the Day put the Three Lions' attacking woes into context as the two teams went in scoreless at the interval:
Match of the Day @BBCMOTD
Not a single shot on target for England. Now they do have anyone with goals in them on the bench? https://t.co/HM0BSkjMTC2016-10-11 19:33:03
Slovenia came out of the blocks firing on all cylinders, and it was a stunning drive from Josip Ilicic that put the home side on the front foot before just being denied at close range.
The trouble wasn't over for England, however, as Slovenia drilled in a couple of corners that caused serious concern in Hart's box, but the Torino stopper was equal to the challenge, via Squawka:
Squawka News @SquawkaNews
That world-class save by Joe Hart to keep the scores level. Stunning.👏 https://t.co/B8HujaRDeo2016-10-11 19:52:13
Slovenia's grip on the finer chances tightened as the match wore on, and following Dier's mistake earlier on, Henderson was also to blame for wastefully gifting away possession on the 70-minute mark.
Once again, Ilicic descended upon goal, but Hart stood strong to deny the home side's leading man in what was fast becoming a man-of-the-match-worthy performance. England's official Twitter account celebrated the No. 1's latest intervention:
70: He's done it again! Another superb save from Joe Hart. #threelions https://t.co/vHqjgqIvM42016-10-11 20:11:33
Rooney finally made his way off the bench with just over 15 minutes remaining, replacing Dele Alli and slotting into the No. 10 role, the position in which he stood to do the most damage.
Even with his armband back, however, Rooney wasn't enough to provide England the attacking impetus they needed, and Manchester United team-mate Marcus Rashford soon joined him in place of Daniel Sturridge.
Jesse Lingard forced Oblak into a fine save with fewer than 10 minutes remaining, but it was Slovenia who were asking questions as an otherwise forgettable game for England ran into its closing stages.
For all that was lacking in attack, however, Hart's display in goal was something positive for Southgate to examine, and BenchWarmers illustrated the solidity of his performance:
England now have a month of rest before they take on Group F opponents Scotland at Wembley Stadium on November 11, a heated clash that promises to showcase a few fireworks of its own.
Southgate has built a case to be kept on in the England manager's seat for now, but questions will be asked as to whether he'll still be there the next time the Three Lions are in action.
Those hoping to see Southgate retain his spot as England manager permanently may not have seen those odds boosted by Tuesday's performance, but Hart's status as England's No. 1 was certainly done some good.
The interim boss came out in support of the Turin-based stopper after the result, per BBC Sport, as many might argue the Three Lions would surely have lost were it not for the man between the posts:
We owe our goalkeeper really for getting a point. He was fantastic. He's at his best when he's calm and composed, it's something we've discussed and this week his manner has been very calm. He was at his best tonight. It was a brilliant save, we didn't start either half well and its an outstanding save that gets us a point.
I can't thank the players and support team enough for the backing I have had. We wanted six points but we have taken over a mess and had to steady the ship. We are on track. I am going to have a couple of days to go and sleep.
Prior to Tuesday's meeting, England hadn't failed to win a World Cup qualifier since 2013, but Southgate nevertheless described the draw as what could be an "important point."
Hart was also pleased with his outing, although the stopper said he's likely to be feeling the effects of the performance come Wednesday morning, per the BBC:
They had chances, we dominated the game. A lot of respect, they have dug in and Jan Oblak had a fantastic game for them.
It's 0-0, we are going to have to take it. It's my best game for a while, but it was down to a few errors from us. We have to improve but we are trying to qualify for Russia. My body is in pieces, I'll struggle to get up tomorrow. I landed on the frame of the goal.
Some may find cause to argue with any claims that the Three Lions "dominated the game," but England will attempt to right those errors when they come up against Scotland next month.