England qualified top of their group unbeaten on thirty points after their victory over Lithuania on Monday, yet that does not seem enough. Jamie Carragher has claimed it is the easiest it has ever been to win an England cap, after Dele Ali made his debut in the 88th minute against Estonia. Meanwhile, complaints are being made that the group was too easy and we could not have expected anything less than thirty points. Yet, does all this pessimism miss the point?
England are the only team to qualify for France unbeaten, a feat World Champions Germany failed to do, as well as teams such as Italy and Spain who regularly regarded as better than England. Yes, these teams may have had some stronger competition in their group, but still look at the Netherlands, a team graced with the talents of Wesley Sneijder and Robin Van Persie, who failed to even make the third place play-offs. England could only play the group they were drawn in and they did so with aplomb.
In fact, the matches against some of the lesser teams in Europe are equally as tough. How often do we see an English club struggle against an obscure European side in the Champions or Europa League? The game in Lithuania on Monday, for example, presented tough conditions: a partisan home crowd cheering on their team on a sodden and poor pitch. It would be so easy in such conditions for England, already qualified, to play out a draw. Similarly, against Switzerland, arguably England’s greatest challenge, the chance of a draw or a close loss was great from an often unpredictable England team. Switzerland are blessed with attacking flair in Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, yet England picked up two wins.
England managed to secure victories from long away trips in difficult conditions against stubborn opposition. England’s conditions could be comparable to a Premier League giant facing a non-league minnow in the FA Cup. The chance for failure is small but the price so great that an upset somehow seems more likely, and to avoid that is credit in itself for England. Football today is often seen as being all about the glamour but there is so much to gain from long, tiring away days against tough opponents in front of partisan crowds. A team spirit and genuine desire to play for your country are minimal requirements if you are going to turn out in the depths of Europe, hundreds of miles from home. These fixtures will give the luxuriously paid Premier League stars of this England team a reality check. The party truly starts in France, but they will have learnt so much by toiling to get there.
Qualifying has also helped England develop its squad too. True some of these players will face far sterner tests, but new players, such as Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy, have been blooded with the opportunity to get them into the England set-up in a winning team in a less pressurised situation. Harry Kane’s debut goal against Lithuania would have done wonders for his confidence and made him feel at ease at the pinnacle of his sport. These games have also allowed out of form players to find their touch. Harry Kane, again, has also struggled to hit the target for Tottenham this season but he found form in the closing stages of qualifying. With the aid of the Lithuanian keeper’s head, his goal ended the contest on Monday while providing a direct attacking threat for the Three Lions. Additionally, Wayne Rooney, unable to find the net regularly at Manchester United this season, became England’s all time record goalscorer.
Despite criticism for not playing his first choice team to get them to gel Hodgson was wise blooding new players and promoting strength in depth. His first choice team will never be set up to play like they did against Lithuania as they will be to play France in their upcoming friendly – so why make them play at all? Why risk injury? The low risk high reward strategy was to create strength in depth and get players ready to compete for their England shirt. Up front there is now a tussle between Daniel Sturridge, Wayne Rooney, Harry Kane and even Jamie Vardy not far behind. Danny Welbeck and Danny Ings can also challenge for places once back from injury. Competition can only be good.
England’s success never seems to be enough. However, as the only team to qualify unbeaten, and with maximum points from a qualifying campaign for the first time in their history, they have developed a strong squad hardened by tough away days. How tough and how strong we will only know when they get to France. But rest assured they could be in far worse a state: they could be the Netherlands.