England have started their World Cup 2022 qualifying campaign with a perfect nine points from three games – but that cannot disguise the fact that questions remain for Gareth Southgate.
The England manager and his players hardly deserve too much criticism after move into pole position in their group, but that comes with the caveat that there will be much sterner tests to come in the months ahead.
So with the delayed European Championship on the horizon, what sort of shape are England in right now?
Rice and Mount showing their class
The answer is they are looking promising – but they remain a work in progress in some areas.
Southgate is presiding over a talented, youthful squad and there is enough attacking weaponry to test the best in the Euros, led by that virtual guarantee of goals Harry Kane.
Chelsea’s Mason Mount is a top-class talent while West Ham midfielder Declan Rice has moved his game on to another level this season and will be the fulcrum of England’s midfield this summer.
Rice is maturing at such a rate that he is now indispensable. Yes, these qualifiers may not be the most exacting examinations but he has also looked a class act at club level under manager David Moyes this season.
Phil Foden once again demonstrated his pedigree and will push for a start, while Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips will hope he has done enough to get a chance as a defensive midfield anchor if Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson fails to recover full fitness after groin surgery.
And this is without Aston Villa talisman Jack Grealish, so impressive for England recently – although he may fear his unfortunate injury absence may have allowed others to just nudge ahead of him once more in Southgate’s pecking order.
England’s sudden lack of ideas and inertia in the second half, with Southgate surprisingly resisting the temptation to change personnel even as the victory threatened to slip away, certainly jogged the memory of how Grealish demanded the ball constantly and probed so urgently in his recent appearances.
Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse has also taken the opportunity to show he is comfortable at England level. He is firmly in contention.
England will be a genuine threat at the Euros, with Southgate having plenty of options to pick from. He will be under pressure to get those big calls right – but it is the sort of pressure managers at this level will enjoy.
The problems still lie elsewhere.
England’s defence a real concern
It was hardly a surprise that England’s opponents did not trouble the scorers in their opening two games against San Marino and Albania, although Myrto Uzuni missed a big opportunity for Albania before England went on to win 2-0 in Tirana.
This was why, in some respects, it was a shame Robert Lewandowski was injured and so remained at a safe distance from England’s defenders.
It would have been informative to see how England’s defenders coped with the movement, skill and predatory brilliance of the great Poland striker.
And, after this, the fear still lingers that England’s defensive frailties will leave them open to punishment when they are confronted by the best, as they will be in the summer.
John Stones has been magnificent for Manchester City this season and does not deserve to be pilloried for one error but the moment that led to Poland’s equaliser was a reminder of times gone by.
It was also a reminder of why he had lost his slot in England’s team in the first place. It was the sudden, expensive moment of uncertainty that his supporters hoped had been totally eradicated from his game.
He and Southgate will want this to be a temporary blip from a defender who has been absolutely superb for champions-elect Manchester City in this campaign.
And yet the nagging doubts are there.
What if England’s defence is finally examined to the full by class opposition at the Euros? Can this rearguard be trusted to remain watertight and protect what a high-quality attack can give them?
I’m not sure you would put a lot of money on it.
Harry Maguire is a solid Premier League defender but may find his lack of pace exposed by those at the real elite level, while both Kyle Walker and Ben Chilwell are more attack-minded in their intent.
This is not to pour cold water on England’s aspirations this summer. It is simply to express what must be a genuine concern.
Who will be England’s goalkeeper?
Nick Pope’s England record is impressive. This was the first goal Burnley’s keeper has conceded in seven appearances, although he has had next to nothing to do (in fact nothing to do) in some of those.
Has he done enough to make Southgate switch away from his first choice of the last three years, Everton’s Jordan Pickford?
I would suggest not.
Pickford’s form at club level has been erratic but, to use Southgate’s perfectly understandable reasoning, he has never let England down at any point. The statistics back up the argument. Using Opta’s measures, Pickford has not made a mistake leading to a goal in 30 England appearances.
This counts in a manager’s reckoning, as does Pickford’s ability with a ball at his feet. Keeping the ball out of the net is actually becoming a rather under-rated quality among goalkeepers these days, but Southgate is an admirer of how Pickford’s expertise in possession helps England play.
Pope does not have that yet and, he can say unfortunately, has not actually had the opportunity to show how good he is in these recent England games.
He has, though, looked uncertain in possession, lashing one first-half clearance straight at Rice and stumbling in the second half after an apparent moment of miscommunication with Stones. He also passed the ball to Stones in a dangerous area for Poland’s equaliser, although the defender had to deal with it far more adeptly.
Pickford is currently sidelined with an abdominal injury with no fixed timeframe to return. Injuries at this stage of the season are always a concern – but if he is fit and ready he will still be favourite to be England’s goalkeeper at the at start of the Euros.
Who still has England hopes?
Manchester United’s Luke Shaw, for one. He still has the chance to be a real threat to Chilwell.
The rejuvenated Shaw was excellent in Albania as he created the important opener for Kane, while he seems to have rediscovered that extra yard of pace to add to all his other qualities in an outstanding season at Old Trafford.
Chelsea’s Chilwell still looks to be in pole position but Shaw can still make an impression.
Grealish will hope he can make his mark between now and the Euros to push for a starting position while Henderson, whose ability and leadership would make him a certainty for the squad and possibly for the team, is relying on a swift recovery from surgery.
Henderson’s Liverpool team-mate Trent Alexander-Arnold would appear to have a problem on his hands forcing his way back in, remarkable given his quality even if he has not been at his best in this traumatic season at Anfield.
Alexander-Arnold must come under consideration, his class demands it, but it is a bad time to be left out of the squad for competitive internationals when the next time points and prizes will be on the line will be when the Euros kicks off in less than three months.