England youngsters need more time to become more competitive
England have now gone 42 European Championship and World Cup qualifiers unbeaten.
England’s qualification for Euro 2020 continues to look more easier than a formality- but it will not come from any of the teams they will face on the route to next summer’s showpiece.
Their opponents in Group A could almost have been hand-picked for a comfortable passage by manager Gareth Southgate and the Football Association.
There is a danger, however, that lies in brushing aside such impotent opposition with monotonous regularity.
Bulgaria, ranked 60th in the world by Fifa, were dismissed 4-0 at Wembley, while Kosovo, at 120th, are next up at St Mary’s in Southampton on Tuesday. The Czech Republic, England’s highest-rated opponents at 43rd, have already been beaten 5-0 at Wembley while Montenegro, at 55, were outclassed 5-1 on their own ground.
Not exactly glorified friendlies but hardly testing occasions either.
England have now gone unbeaten for 42 European Championship and World Cup qualifying games – winning 33 and drawing nine – since the defeat by Ukraine in October 2009.
A decade without defeat in qualifying is hugely impressive, but the flipside of that is the fat lot of good it has done England when it has really mattered.
The Three Lions’ run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals was a glorious, feel-good surprise, although the perceived success has to be tempered by them being beaten on the three occasions they met a side of serious quality – Belgium twice and Croatia.
The abysmal World Cups of 2010 and 2014, along with the debacle of Euro 2016, meant the Russian odyssey was an exception rather than the rule.
The make-up of Group A now means England are again presented with the prospect of facing their most taxing competitive tests for two years – 12 months if we count the inaugural Uefa Nations League semi-final loss to the Netherlands – once the serious action gets under way next summer.
The notion of England not qualifying is a non-starter. This is not arrogance but a simple statement of fact. It is clear any starting line-up Southgate assembles from his squad should be good enough to ensure their place at Euro 2020 with the minimum of fuss.
It means there is actually a case for Southgate getting his squad match-hardened for Euro 2020 in the remaining qualifiers with a policy of rotation. There are plenty of promising candidates ready to step up.
Ross Barkley was preferred to James Maddison and Mason Mount in England’s midfield
This was a relatively conservative selection by Southgate, passing over the claims of in-form pair Mason Mount from Chelsea and Leicester City’s James Maddison for starting places, preferring Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice as his midfield anchor men and Chelsea’s Ross Barkley further forward.
Southgate also opted for the experience of Atletico Madrid’s Kieran Trippier over Liverpool youngster Trent Alexander-Arnold at right-back – despite the latter’s vastly superior form over the past 12 months.
The policy cannot be criticised given a 4-0 victory that barely caused England to break sweat, but there is still a good case for freshening up England with young blood at St Mary’s on Tuesday.
It would not be a case of taking Kosovo lightly, simply giving England’s young brigade a taste of the competitive action they will need to prepare them for what may await when sterner examinations come next summer.
Not so much experimentation, more sound common sense in readiness for the acid tests.
Leicester City’s Ben Chilwell will come in for suspended Danny Rose at left-back, while England’s side would hardly be weakened by Alexander-Arnold’s inclusion.
Mount won his first cap as a substitute and there is a case for actually playing him or Maddison rather than the extra insurance policy of both Henderson and Rice. They could certainly offer a viable alternative and serious competition to Ross Barkley, not as replacements for the future but certainly as rivals.
The good news for England and Southgate is that the squad looks like it can bear a fair amount of rotation without seriously weakening the overall package.
England captain Harry Kane, with a hat-trick here to take his England tally to 25 goals from 40 appearances and go above 1966 World Cup final hero Sir Geoff Hurst in the all-time list of goalscorers, and Raheem Sterling are irreplaceable.
Kane, admittedly helped by a regular supply of penalties, is building a truly remarkable body of work with England.
He leads from the front in every respect, his tireless work ethic and consistency a touchstone for this modern England, while his partnership with Sterling increasingly looks like a natural, telepathic fit. Southgate has a pairing that will be the envy of many countries at Euro 2020.
Southgate also has room for manoeuvre elsewhere that hardly strips his starting XI of quality.
Gareth Southgate says Kieran Trippier’s move to Atletico Madrid has given him “a new lease of life”
In defence, Alexander-Arnold is hardly a downgrade on Trippier in the absence of the injured Aaron Wan-Bissaka and the dropped Kyle Walker, while those midfield options also include Tottenham’s Harry Winks.
Borussia Dortmund’s 19-year-old Jadon Sancho has proved he lives comfortably at this level. He will relish more chances and the big, competitive stage.
England would not be belittling Kosovo or any of their future opponents in qualifying by shuffling their pack. It would simply be a case of seeing the bigger picture.
It is an old concern – but it may be the start of Euro 2020, when faced with the sort of forensic examinations the best teams conduct, before we find out just how good this England team is and how much progress has been made since they just came up short in the semi-finals at the World Cup and the Uefa Nations League.
England have been here before. This time they must be ready for when the serious interrogation starts next summer.
Credit: Phil McNulty