England could secure qualification for Euro 2020 in their next games away in the Czech Republic on Friday and Bulgaria on Monday.
Gareth Southgate’s side are cruising in Group A with a maximum 12 points from four games as well as a goal difference of plus-15 after victories against Bulgaria and Kosovo in the last international break.
And yet, despite that healthy appearance, it was not all plain sailing – and Southgate still has issues to tackle as England fly out to Prague on Thursday, then on to Sofia.
Southgate must solve defensive flaws
England’s 5-3 win over Kosovo came in two distinct parts: attacking brilliance from Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Jadon Sancho undermined by defensive calamity by, in particular, Everton’s Michael Keane with Manchester United’s Harry Maguire not far behind.
Keane gifted Kosovo a goal inside the first minute while Maguire clumsily conceded a penalty as England briefly threatened to throw away a 5-1 half-time lead.
It was a disastrous performance, especially in the second half when they were often reduced to a shambles, not helped by a porous midfield exposing that vulnerable defence.
The takeaway should have been three points closer to Euro 2020. Instead the reality was the realisation that if England go on to defend as badly against quality opposition they will be ripped apart – and any hopes of a first major trophy since 1966 could go up in smoke.
This is not being alarmist. It is a fact and one, to his credit, recognised by Southgate’s criticism of the defending.
Keane’s place looks in danger after his uncertain display and Southgate certainly has alternatives should he decide a price must be paid for the defensive debacle against Kosovo.
Liverpool’s Joe Gomez would normally be the obvious contender, but the 22-year-old is struggling for game time at club level because of Joel Matip’s fine form and has, understandably, looked rusty when playing against the likes of Red Bull Salzburg.
Chelsea’s 21-year-old Fikayo Tomori is a graduate to the senior line-up, while Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings has already had a taste of being around the squad in the last international break.
Either way, England’s problem must be cured otherwise this will provide a worrying back-drop to qualifying, with the nagging suspicions that a confrontation with quality could end in tears.
Can Chelsea’s transfer ban help Southgate?
Chelsea’s current transfer ban has seen manager Frank Lampard debut youngsters from the club’s academy with great success this season – and there are increasing signs England could be the spin-off beneficiaries.
Mason Mount has already found favour with two appearances as a substitute for England while Tomori and Tammy Abraham have been included this time to give the squad a youthful injection from Stamford Bridge.
Abraham, 22, stands alongside Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero as the Premier League’s top scorer with eight goals and thoroughly deserves his recall after deciding to throw in his lot with England rather than Nigeria, winning two caps in friendlies for Southgate’s side.
He will not be ousting captain Kane any time soon but happily admitted: “I’ve come here to steal his ideas.”
Chelsea’s young trio provide vibrant, in-form alternatives for Southgate, who will see the fruits of Lampard’s fine work and faith in Mount, Tomori and Abraham – the first two flourishing under him in his first season in management at Derby County.
They have already experienced the pain of international football as members of England’s Under-21 squad that failed to get out of their group at the Euros last summer, but now they hope for pleasure on the road to Euro 2020.
When will Maddison get his chance?
Leicester City’s 22-year-old midfield man James Maddison has been one of the stand-out performers for Brendan Rodgers’ resurgent side in the early weeks of the season, so it was a surprise he never featured at any stage in either the 4-0 win against Bulgaria at Wembley or the chaotic triumph over Kosovo.
Indeed, when changes were made in the attacking midfield areas, Southgate went for Chelsea’s Mount on both occasions as he replaced Jordan Henderson after 67 minutes against Bulgaria and Ross Barkley with seven minutes left and the game needing to be locked down against Kosovo.
Does Maddison still have work to do to fully convince Southgate? Surely it is only a matter of time before he is given his senior debut?
There are no questions at club level, where Maddison has shown creativity and potency, scoring the winner in Leicester’s 2-1 win over Spurs and then the equaliser at Anfield before the Foxes went down 2-1 to Liverpool.
Barkley got the nod ahead of Maddison against Kosovo but he is currently out of the Chelsea side and made headlines of the wrong sort following a reported altercation with a taxi driver in Liverpool recently.
Maddison will also have noted that the poor form of Tottenham’s Dele Alli and Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard, both automatic picks at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, means that they have, for now at least, been excluded from Southgate’s squad.
Opportunities are available as the clock ticks down to next summer.
Maddison’s form screams for some sort of recognition and he will hope he gets the chance to stake his claims in either Prague or Sofia.
No problems up top
One area where Southgate has no worries – apart from the sort a manager actually relishes – is in attack, where England can stand their ground against anyone in Europe.
England have scored 19 goals in their four qualifying wins, and five goals in the first 45 minutes against Kosovo provided an electrifying response to going a goal down so quickly.
It now looks like Kane, Sterling and Borussia Dortmund’s brilliant teenager Sancho will be the first choice attacking trident, the latter now ahead of Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford in Southgate’s order.
The likes of Rashford, Abraham and Callum Wilson provide able back-up, making this an area where Southgate can sleep easily – this is a team that will score goals.
The big problem is that, unless they tighten up, they will concede them against good teams.