RARELY can World Cup qualification have felt as downbeat or dispiriting as this. England have booked their place in next summer’s finals with a game to spare, and remain one of just seven European sides with an unbeaten record in the current round of qualifiers. Yet after their latest dreadful performance against limited opposition, no one will be expecting Gareth Southgate’s side to improve on their shocking recent record in major tournaments when they line up in Russia.

Despite Harry Kane’s stoppage-time winner, this was every bit as bad as last summer’s defeat to Iceland, 2014’s capitulations in Brazil or the series of featureless displays that marked England’s participation at Euro 2012. If anything, the 2010 World Cup draw with Algeria in Cape Town – widely acknowledged as one of England’s dullest ever matches - was perhaps the most fitting comparison.

Completely devoid of creativity, vision or anything approximating attacking nous, England limped to the one-goal victory that guarantees they will top Group F. Presumably, that is F for futile in terms of what they will go on to achieve next summer.

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Kane deserves credit for plugging away to the end, and having prodded home Kyle Walker’s low cross in the third minute of stoppage time, the Spurs striker is one of the few England players to emerge with any credit.

There were contenders for the dubious honour of being England’s worst performer all over the park, but both Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Raheem Sterling would merit being on the top, or bottom, of that list.

Oxlade-Chamberlain was wretched in the hour-or-so before he was replaced, misplacing passes, drifting out of position and failing to take anything resembling an attacking risk. Even Southgate conceded he should probably not have been in the squad given his lack of involvement for either Arsenal or Liverpool this season, and this was surely the night when he ran out of international lives.

The same should be true of Sterling, even though his domestic form with Manchester City has witnessed an upturn this season. The winger has failed to live up to his billing on countless occasions in an England shirt, and last night’s lacklustre display was arguably the worst of the lot. Like Theo Walcott before him, he appears destined to be a nearly-man.

Throw in Marcus Rashford looking ineffective in a wide role on the left-hand side, and Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier constantly taking the easy option and passing sideways at the base of midfield, and you had all the ingredients for a truly insipid display.

Sunday marks the first anniversary of Southgate’s first game in charge of England, and it is impossible to claim that he has taken the side forward. There have been off-field successes in terms of reframing what it means to pull on an England shirt and avoiding the potential pitfalls of Wayne Rooney’s international retirement, but on the pitch, things have generally been desperate.

Southgate has won six of his 11 games at the helm, but whenever England have encountered decent opposition – Germany, Spain and France – they have come up short. If they meet a side of that calibre next summer, there is every chance they will once again be found wanting.

There are a host of problems, but perhaps the most chronic is a lack of creative dynamism at the heart of midfield. England dominated possession for the vast majority of the night, but with Henderson and Dier playing alongside each other in the central area, the hosts were crying out for someone with the vision to thread a through ball in to the forwards. At times, even a routine pass out to the flanks would have sufficed.

Time and time again, the ball went sideways or backwards, and while Slovenia’s defenders deserve credit for the quality of their organisation and discipline, they rarely found themselves having to counter players running in behind them.

England were barely out of the Slovenian half in the opening stages, yet it was the 14th minute before they fashioned an effort at goal, and even that was down to individualism, with Kane driving across the face of the area before drilling in a 25-yard strike that was saved by Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak.

Kane was feeding off scraps for long periods, and found himself having to drop outside the area in an attempt to secure possession. He had an effort disallowed when his first-half header from Rashford’s corner was ruled out because of Sterling’s foul inside the six-yard box, but that was a rare moment when he was involved in the heart of the penalty area. Given the form he has been in for Tottenham in the last month, surely England’s midfielders should have been feeding him at every opportunity?

And surely Rashford should not have been on corner duty. Roy Hodgson was rightly pilloried for insisting that Kane took the corners during England’s ill-fated Euro 2016 campaign, yet here was Southgate happily watching as Rashford made a hash of delivering a series of set-pieces. If Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sterling cannot adequately cross a ball, what on earth are they doing in the team?

Oblak was only seriously tested once during the first half, turning Henderson’s low effort around the post, and by that stage, Slovenia had posed problems of their own on the break.

Joe Hart, who remains fortunate to be in the starting line-up ahead of Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford, produced a routine save from Andraz Sporar, but the England goalkeeper would have been much more seriously tested had Roman Bezjak not missed his kick when attempting to volley home Josip Ilicic’s cross. Had Bezjak made contact, a ragged home defence could have been in serious trouble.

Indeed, had Slovenia displayed a tad more ambition, they could have potentially have secured the victory that would have massively improved their own qualification hopes, such was the tardiness of England’s display.

As it was, the second half meandered along aimlessly, with a sparse Wembley crowd becoming increasingly unhappy. The fact that the entire upper tier of one of the stands was completely empty underlined the lack of enthusiasm for this England team. Nights like this will hardly help reignite the nation’s passion.

Rashford wasted a decent opportunity when he opted to chip the ball across the area rather than drive hard and low when Sterling’s break teed him up on the corner of the box, and Sterling’s goalbound shot was blocked by Bostjan Cesar when it looked destined for the bottom corner shortly after the hour mark.

Kane drilled a low effort wide after another of Sterling’s shots was blocked shortly after, and the skipper’s persistence was rewarded deep in stoppage time. Walker won back possession after Slovenia made a mess of clearing their lines, and Kane prodded home the full-back’s low cross. A despairing Oblak got his hand to the ball, but was unable to keep it out.