So, that is pretty much job done for Gareth Southgate.
Victory against Slovakia on Monday evening at Wembley has all but guaranteed that England will qualify for the World Cup in Russia barring a total collapse in the last round of fixtures. It is inconceivable that the national team, despite its recent trials, tribulations and failures, will fail to pick up the two points required to cement their place at the top of Group F from the remaining games against Slovenia and Lithuania.
For Southgate, qualification will come as a relief rather than something to be celebrated. In fact, the 47-year-old was breathing a sigh of relief on Monday when strikes from Eric Dier and Marcus Rashford clutched victory from what was threatening to become a precarious scenario after his side had fallen behind less than three minutes after the game had kicked off. However, a win is a win and the England players will be heading back to their domestic clubs this week safe in the knowledge that a spot in Russia in 2018 is pretty much a foregone conclusion.
However, the latest international break has done little to persuade onlookers that England have made any notable progress since they were knocked out of the European championships last summer. Southgate’s team were jeered off after an unconvincing performance against Malta and whilst the players showed character and grit to recover from a one goal deficit on Monday there is little to suggest that England are any closer to challenging for major honours than they were just over twelve months ago.
There needs to be an acceptance now that the national team are no longer a force to be reckoned with.
England haunted by the same issues
Gareth Southgate has managed to steady the England ship following the controversial departure of Sam Allardyce after just one fixture, but the national team are still dogged by the same issues that have been prevalent for the last decade.
Tactically, England are rigid and inflexible. On Monday evening Southgate once again elected to deploy the 4-2-3-1 formation that he has favoured since his appointment. Whilst the 47-year-old will point to the fact that his tactics have facilitated two victories, neither of the performances against Malta or Slovakia were entirely convincing nor free flowing. There is no sign of a distinctive style of play and the team is lacking an identity.
However, that may simple be down to the personnel at Southgate’s disposal.
There is a real lack of quality throughout the current England squad when compared to the calibre of player that was available for selection in the so-called ‘golden generation’. Is Phil Jones really on the same level as Rio Ferdinand, John Terry or Sol Campbell? Are Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier even worthy of tying the laces on the boots of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes? Is Ryan Bertrand anything other than half the fullback that Ashley Cole was? Is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain anything more than just a headless chicken with pace and no end product?
The England squad consists of players that are bang average when compared to the iconic figures of the past or even their counterparts at other national teams. Barring the contributions of Deli Alli, Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford you would be hard-pressed to identify any player that had produced a performance that would rate as anything more than a 6/10 from the last two games.
Making up the numbers
England are no longer a significant power in international football.
Yes, the national team may still be capable of qualifying for major tournaments with relative ease but all of the signs indicate that once they come up against an opponent of note they will crumble. If England can just about edge out the superpowers of Malta and Slovakia then how are they expected to be able to defeat a team of the calibre of, say, Germany or Argentina?
In comparison, the German’s easily defeated Norway by six goals on the same evening that Gareth Southgate’s side were forced to overturn a one goal deficit on home turf in front of the lowest attendance at Wembley Stadium for three years.
So England can breathe a sigh of relief that qualification to Russia is all but confirmed, yet there is still nothing to suggest that the national team will be heading to the 2018 World Cup as anything more than a side to make up the numbers.