A 3–0 win away to Lithuania has seen Roy Hodgson’s England side record 10 wins from 10 and book themselves a place in next year’s European Championships.
England have become only the 6th nation to qualify unbeaten and they did it in style. Yes, the group was exceedingly poor but as the cliche goes, ‘you can only beat the teams put in front of you’. It certainly doesn’t hurt if you can score 31 and concede 3 along the way either.
Despite achieving a qualification regarded by many as a formality, Hodgson is now faced with a tricky situation.
The road to this Euro 2016 was littered with potential pitfalls and the role of England manager had never been more of a poisoned chalice.
England’s so called golden generation limped out of the World Cup in Brazil with a whimper. A nationwide post-mortem declared a gulf in class and a gulf within the squad. The elder statesmen had peaked and the young guns were yet to impress.
Roy Hodgson had inherited a squad with too few players at the peak of their talents and the role of England’s manager was set to live up to its “poisoned chalice” reputation.
England were yet again handed a relatively straightforward qualifying group. They were joined in Group E by Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, and San Marino.
FIFA’s rankings at the beginning of qualification.
Switzerland — 10th
Slovenia — 53rd
Estonia — 81st
Lithuania — 103rd
San Marino — 208th
FIFA’s ranking system is far from perfect but without a game that could be considered “difficult”, England had entered into a situation in which they simply couldn’t satisfy.
Cruising through their group winning each game has prompted fans and media to bemoan an easy group that never really tested the merit of the squad. Of course, had they dropped points the same people would have condemned the squad for being woefully poor.
So, England pass their mediocre test with colours that were expected to be flying, so what next for Hodgson? Use the solid tactics and first choice XI in France and carry on? Well that would be great if Hodgson had actually nailed down either of those things.
33 players were used in qualifying. Players like Dele Ali and Danny Ings have only just broken into the squad as options and Daniel Sturridge hasn’t kicked a ball for England in qualifying. Rather than give Hodgson a selection headache, the performances of Barkley and Lallana in roles formerly occupied by Carrick and Wilshere has forced Hodgson to tinker with conflicting styles.
The potential for England to be a potent counter-attacking team is obvious. The pace and guile of players like Walcott, Chamberlain, Vardy and Sterling make them dangerous on the break. However, the teams played thus far have allowed England to boss possession and chances to counter-attack have been limited.
Hodgson has learned absolutely nothing from these qualifiers other than the fact that England can grind out results against Europe’s makeweights. When asked how he will utilise his newer recruits in the upcoming friendlies against France and Spain Hodgson said he would, “Use them to learn and see where we are.”
He doesn’t know where England are in respect to the rest of the top European teams. After the final game of a 10 match qualifying procedure Hodgson has learned almost nothing he didn’t already know when he inherited the squad for the World Cup. Facing France and Spain next month will tell Hodgson more about his squad than demolishing Group E did and it will be interesting to see if the Three Lions can really hold their own against Europe’s elite.