Gareth Southgate’s England ended their World Cup qualifying campaign in Group F unbeaten on Sunday with a 1-0 win in Lithuania, Harry Kane’s first-half spot-kick enough to secure all three points after his Spurs teammate Dele Alli was upended by Ovidjus Verbickas inside the penalty area.
In truth, that was the only real highlight of the 90 minutes, Southgate’s experimental line-up failing to excite in a dour display in Vilnius, following up Thursday night’s below par showing against Slovenia at Wembley which had rubber-stamped the Three Lions’ place in Russia.
The main talking point of the night came from Southgate’s three-man central defence, including a debut for Leicester City defender Harry Maguire, whilst fellow debutant Harry Winks impressed after being handed his first senior cap in midfield.
Despite England boss Southgate facing various critics on social media over his inclusion of the Tottenham youngster in his squad following the injury forced withdrawals of Fabian Delph and Phil Jones, the midfielder was a rare bright spark in a dead-rubber game for England, and was only denied a debut international goal by a flying save from Lithuania goalkeeper Ernestas Setkus after the interval.
Despite a qualifying record of nine wins and one draw from ten matches, there still appears to be much room for improvement for England, who only managed four shots on target.
They may well have been punished had they been facing stronger opposition, with Jack Butland required to intervene on two notable occasions, including a flying save from his own defender Michael Keane following a botched clearance.
But what were the biggest talking points of a wet and windy night in Vilnius as a World Cup qualifying campaign that looks impressive on paper drew to a quiet close?
Experimental England remain unbeaten but laboured against mediocre opposition
With qualification secured, Gareth Southgate handed starts to some of the fringe players in his England squad as he looks to explore more of his options in a bid to identify his strongest starting XI and, with it, his most effective formation and tactical set-up.
Jack Butland, Kieran Trippier, Aaron Cresswell, and Michael Keane all started alongside debutants Winks and Maguire, with Dele Alli recalled after completing a one-match ban. Yet, far from the urgency and hunger to impress that many expected, England made hard work of it against a markedly average Lithuania.
Kane’s 27th minute penalty was England’s first effort on target in a match where they only managed four, and they failed to stamp their authority on the match as the Lithuanians themselves carved out half chances of their own as the game wore on.
In attack, there seemed to be a real lack of forward intent, with Marcus Rashford – one of England’s bright sparks in the win over Slovenia – often opting to run the channels and lose the ball amongst a flurry of Lithuanian defenders.
Few looked willing to gamble in the penalty area in support of lone striker and focal point Harry Kane, with midfielders, such as Jordan Henderson, opting to sit deep rather than venture forward in the aim of hurting the hosts.
The penalty award was a rare moment of craft, with Cresswell getting up in support and Alli’s impressive movement carving open an opportunity from which he drew the foul inside the box. That may well have been enough to secure the points on the night, but does little to stoke the fires of optimism ahead of clashes with stronger opposition in Russia.
The statistics seem impressive, but the performance offers little to write home about. With 30 players having been used by both Sam Allardyce and Gareth Southgate in this qualifying campaign alone, too much reshuffling and little stability and continuity may be one cause of the team’s ills.
On a more positive note, Kane’s strike was his 15th this season for club and country, and his seventh in his previous six appearances for England. The Spurs star will almost certainly be the man that Southgate elects to lead the line in Russia.
More defensive re-shuffling to follow?
Southgate rightfully waited until qualification was secure before re-shuffling the pack in Vilnius, opting to experiment with a 3-4-3 set-up akin to Antonio Conte’s title-winning Chelsea side of last season.
Michael Keane, John Stones and debutant Harry Maguire were the starring trio in the defensive line, and although relatively solid there were a few hiccups along the way.
Jack Butland – handed his opportunity in place of regular Number One Joe Hart – was required to keep out a miscued Michael Keane clearance which may well have ended in an own goal, and had to be alert to cover an 11th-minute flick from Davydas Sernas at his near post, before getting well behind a Deivydas Matulevicius effort after the interval.
On a positive note, Stones looked assured in possession and accurate with his passing within the back three, whilst Maguire enjoyed a relatively trouble free night, unlucky not to have grabbed himself a goal in the third minute from a headed opportunity.
Gareth Southgate has already hinted at the possibility of using the formation again in future, and the three who acted as guinea pigs on Sunday will have done their prospects no real harm here.
Its true effectiveness will be given a far sterner test in the coming weeks, however, with friendlies against Germany and Brazil at Wembley next on the agenda.
Harry Winks justifies inclusion in impressive debut
Gareth Southgate’s decision to include Harry Winks in his squad, even as a replacement for the injury hit duo of Phil Jones and Fabian Delph, raised several eyebrows.
The youngster was handed his international debut having only four starts for Tottenham under his belt, but he justified that inclusion with a man-of-the-match performance, playing a match high 98 passes and offering England a different dimension in the centre-midfield area, which is lacking in regular starters Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson.
It will certainly give Southgate a helpful selection headache for the upcoming games, even if Winks had to stand out amidst so much mediocrity on show in Vilnius.
He brought the bite that England fans expected from the rest of the side when he was allowed to go forward, and appeared far more adventurous than his more seasoned international teammates.
Having spent most of the match sitting deep to accommodate the ineffective Henderson, Southgate could do worse than give Winks game time in a more advanced midfield role.