England have had a perfect start to their qualification campaign for World Cup 2022, but just how is the team shaping up for the Qatar tournament next year?
Sitting at the top of table on nine points, Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions appear to be in full control of their campaign, winning three from three against San Marino, Albania and Poland.
England 5-0 San Marino
Their comprehensive 5-0 win over San Marino kicked off the campaign, with England scoring as many goals as goalkeeper Nick Pope had touches in the first half. There were plenty of positives to take from the game, Ollie Watkins goal on his international debut being one of them. But with the Three Lions on the front foot throughout the match and 32 shots at goal, even Southgate acknowledged that they should have scored more.
Albania 0-2 England
Albania proved more of a challenge than San Marino, but England’s trip to Tirana ended with a comfortable 2-0 victory. There were few anxious moments in defence, including Myrto Uzuni’s break to leave him with only Pope to beat, but England’s breakdown of Albania’s resilient defence guided them to the win. Harry Kane scored his first international goal in 500 days to put the visitors ahead in the first half before Mason Mount added a second after the break. It certainly wasn’t England’s most exciting game of football, but they did the job and maintained their winning start to the competition.
England 2-1 Poland
In the final game of this month’s qualifiers, Poland brought the biggest test to Southgate’s side, despite missing their dominant star Robert Lewandowski to injury. Harry Maguire scored a late winner to make the game 2-1, assisted by John Stones whose mistake earlier in the game gifted Poland an equaliser to Kane’s 19th minute penalty. It was an awkward game, with England lacking the dominance they had asserted in the previous two. Performance aside, England did just enough to keep their 100 percent record in this qualifying campaign, leaving them two points clear at the top of Group I.
Next Steps for the Three Lions
There’s no doubt that England are aiming to be group winners, and will need to continue this form to automatically qualify for the competition and avoid the play-offs. But before the final rounds of qualification come around in autumn, England have Euro 2020 to prepare for, with these March internationals giving Southgate time to firm up his ideas about squad selection and formation.
The Three Lions squad has changed significantly since the 2018 World Cup, with the qualifiers team only including nine players who reached the semi-finals in Russia three years ago. That includes recalls for Stones and Jesse Lingard, thanks to their strong club form this season in the Premier League. Luke Shaw was also rewarded a recall, over 900 days since he last appeared on the international scene. On the other side, Ollie Watkins and Sam Johnstone were awarded their first call-ups to the England squad.
With the squad’s average age being 25, Southgate doesn’t seem to be trying to revitalise the squad with youth, but instead find a balance between experience and inexperience on the international stage. In fact, Southgate’s starting XI for the San Marino game included six players with five caps or fewer. Knowing this, it is not surprising that England only managed to capitalise on five of their many chances against the team ranked 210th in the world.
There were some notable absentees from Southgate’s selection of this squad. Liverpool fullback Trent Alexander-Arnold being one of them, the manager citing ‘incredible competition’ in the backline for his omission. Jordan Pickford, Southgate’s first choice keeper for many years, was missing due to injury. As was Jordan Henderson, with the Liverpool captain hoping to return to the side in time for the European competition after recovering from groin surgery. Other injury absentees included Jadon Sancho, Jack Grealish, James Maddison and Harvey Barnes.
Whatever Southgate’s thoughts are about selection, it is clear that England’s performance in Euro 2020 will have an impact on who gets a seat on the plane to Qatar – that is, if they qualify of course. The focus will also be on Southgate’s chosen formation, and if he is striking the correct balance between defensive power and attacking quality – something that seemed lacking in these recent qualifiers.
After the European competition, Southgate’s side will look towards continuing their perfect World Cup qualifying campaign, with games against Hungry, Andorra and Poland in September. The Three Lions are now unbeaten in 24 World Cup qualifiers, and are sure to be wanting to stretch this run all the way to Qatar in 2022.
Written by: Bethan Clargo
Edited by: Lois George