There is an old adage that there are no easy games in football, usually trotted out during the early stages of cup competitions by managers as an attempt to avoid disrespecting an opponent, and cut out complacency within their own squad. However, the cliché just isn’t true. San Marino at home, Estonia away, these are easy games. Some of the world’s very best players up against amateurs from a country with a population smaller than the capacity of Wembley stadium should be easy, as big win should be a given, the performance should be one of sauntering confidence.
Yet that wasn’t forth coming. Of course facing a side everyone expects you to hit a dozen past comes with its own challenges; there is pressure, and it is almost impossible to be as dominant as is expected. Furthermore, key players were out injured, and Hodgson continued with his approach to this European Championship qualification campaigns, handing out debuts and placing trust in youth; this is still a side that is getting to know each other and finding its feet at this level. However, despite the 5-0 score line, it was a pedestrian performance by the Three Lions.
The goals eventually came, and there were certainly positives; England’s young defenders continue to look a fine crop capable of making the step up to international football, Welbeck seems revitalised, as too does Andros Townsend. Never the less, it was far from a vintage display, despite dominating the ball, England lacked urgency and threat with the ball. Once again it was under fire captain Wayne Rooney that carried England through, a feat he repeated again against Estonia.
If the San Marino performance was competent if a little disappointing, the match against Estonia was worrying. Once again England failed to provide a cutting edge, racking up possession and shot stats whilst displaying a concerning profligacy. It fell to the Manchester United man to once again provide a touch of class, winning and converting a free kick to elevate an otherwise lacklustre game. Trot out the clichés; ‘it’s the result that matters’, ‘it’s never easy when the opposition park the bus’, et cetera, but struggling to find a high level against what is effectively a Sunday league side is unacceptable.
Concerns around the two matches, but in particular the Estonia performance have been drowned out by the debate raging around Raheem Sterling’s request to be rested for the game, and the petty clash of club vs country, it is after all difficult to get too worked up over two wins, no goals conceded and almost certain qualification. Perhaps that is correct. The expansion of the tournament has decreased the importance of the qualifying section, and with advancement to the next stage practically assured, why should we worry if it takes this young crop of players time to gel? The answer to that the current level of performance by England won’t worry stronger opposition, and that means these qualifiers must go down as a missed opportunity.
Many may be satisfied by using the 2016 European Championships as a platform to build a team that can challenge for 2018, but with Holland and Germany both suffering losses and what seems to be a post-World Cup hangover, Spain continuing to underwhelm as they try and forge a new identity, Portugal still very much a one-man side, and Italy adapting to life under a new manager, England had the chance to announce themselves as real contenders this week. If England had hit the heights the squad is capable of this week and really punished the weak opposition in front of them, it would have been a real statement of intent. A declaration that England are to be taken seriously, that the country was right to stick by Roy Hodgson and should be considered a threat.
Instead what England told Europe’s big boys is not to worry; we’re still outsiders, underdogs. Take time to find your form, because we’re still in transition, still developing, still not ready to truly compete.