Over the past 10 days, league action has halted to allow for an international break to play the first round of qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup
In group I, England faced San Marino, Albania and Poland. Here’s how they got on.
England 5-0 San Marino – Thursday 25th MarchEmbed from Getty Images
England opened their World Cup account with a 5-0 demolition of San Marino.
Goals from James Ward-Prowse (14′), Dominic Calvert Lewin (21′ & 53′), Raheem Sterling (31′) and a debut goal from Ollie Watkins (83′) secured all three points for England in Group I’s opening round of fixtures.
However, a major talking point, was England’s lacklustre performance in front of goal.
It may seem weird to suggest a team who scored five goals weren’t clinical enough, but this was the case for the Three Lions. Jesse Lingard went close on numerous occasions, as did Raheem Sterling.
Additionally, a fantastic performance from San Marino goalkeeper, Elia Benedettini helped to keep the score down, with the highlight of the keepers game coming as he tipped James Ward-prowse’s free-kick onto the bar.
England took 32 shots, with 15 on target, and only five hitting the back of the net, for a conversion rate of 16%, a poor return against the lowest ranked team in international football (210th).
With San Marino losing their 43 previous qualifying games coming into the fixture, the final outcome was never in doubt, and the attention turned to giving players a chance to show they belong in Gareth Southgate’s Euro 2021 squad.
Players such as James Ward-Prowse, Jesse Lingard and 17-year old Jude Bellingham shone as they battled to prove their worth to Southgate, along with players such as Mason Mount, whose place in this summers’ squad seems a formality at this point.
Overall, England comfortably took all three points as was expected, and players, both names returning to the squad, or just making the squad for the first or second time, were able to impress and give Gareth Southgate a selection headache for this summer.
Albania 0-2 England – Sunday 28th MarchEmbed from Getty Images
For their second fixture, England travelled to Tirana to face a more challenging Albania side.
Whilst being a ‘more challenging’ side than San Marino isn’t exactly an achievement, Albania did cause England some problems, being much harder to break down than the side England had faced prior.
Despite this, England still ran out comfortable winners, with goals from Harry Kane and Mason Mount making it six points out of six for England.
The first key talking point of this game was the creativity and class from Harry Kane that secured victory for the Three Lions.
Kane scored the first goal, his first England goal for 500 days, as he converted Luke Shaw’s cross with a neat diving header, before turning provider to assist Mason Mount. Kane’s class was on display throughout, he threatened the Albanian defence as England were lacklustre and it came as no surprise when he was the man to break the deadlock.
A second point is the use of a 4-3-3 by Gareth Southgate, for the second game running after using it against San Marino.
This represents a move away from his preferred 3/5 at the back variation that Southgate had used for the majority of qualifiers, using three centre-backs and wing-backs.
The move to a 4-3-3 will be music to most England fans ears, with the previous system stifling the creative players that Southgate has to choose from, as well as creating a boring style of play.
However, Southgate once again decided to use two of his three midfield positions on defensive midfielders, in this case Declan Rice and Kalvin Philips.
This was seen the previous system, it provided defensive cover but lead to serious problems in terms of creativity, with England fans left wanting more from the attack.
With the vast amount of midfield creativity within England’s ranks, fans will be fearful that this trend could continue into summer, where we are likely to see a midfield pairing of Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson, if the latter recovers from injury and regains full fitness.
England 2-1 Poland – Wednesday 31st MarchEmbed from Getty Images
England ran out 2-1 winners against a tough Poland side, who struggled throughout without talisman Robert Lewandowski to secure three wins out of three in the qualifiers.
Harry Kane opened the scoring with a first-half penalty (19′), to make him England’s leading goal scorer from the spot. However, Poland would capitalise on a John Stones error in the 58th minute, as the centre-back took to long on the ball, was disposed by Jakub Molder, who converted after a neat one-two with Arkadiusz Milik.
The game took one more twist as John Stones redeemed himself, assisting Harry Maguire in the 85th minute as he met a corner, heading down for Maguire who superbly finished.
The first key point for this game was the fact that England came into the game virtually unchanged from their victory over Albania, with the only change coming at left-back, where Ben Chilwell replaced Luke Shaw in what is a hotly contested position.
The consistency shown over the past two games by Southgate could represent something very significant ahead of this summer’s Euro’s.
Prior to England’s first fixture against San Marino, in an interview with ITV, when asked whether he knew his first XI for the tournament, Southgate admitted that he did know his line up for the first game against Croatia, adding that “tournament experience will be key.”
This could potentially mean that the XI we saw against Albania and Poland could be very similar to the one we will see against Croatia on June 13th, with possible changes for the likes of the injured Jordan Henderson and Jordan Pickford.
A second key point was the fact that Gareth Southgate seemed reluctant to make changes, leaving it until the 85th minute, when Reece James came on for Phil Foden following England’s second goal.
This drew criticism from England fans, and rightly so, at 1-1 England were struggling to find clear cut chances, not helped by the fact some of the players on the field had played nearly two full games in 72 hours.
It is a concern heading into a major tournament that Southgate seems reluctant to make changes when required, and whilst England were able to secure all three points on this occasion, in a tournament, against a quality side they may not be so lucky.
Overall, the International break was a successful one for England, they secured nine points from a possible nine, putting them atop of group I with a five point advantage to Poland, who are likely to be England’s nearest challengers.
They were able to beat their nearest challengers, unproven players who are hungry to prove they deserve a spot were given a game to do so and we were able to see what Gareth Southgate’s team for this summer could look like.
Onto Euro 2021.