By Simon Evans
(Reuters) – The numbers behind England’s successful Euro 2020 qualification highlight just how emphatically Gareth Southgate’s side have secured their place in next year’s finals.
Seven wins from eight games, 37 goals scored at a remarkable average of 4.6 per game, six conceded leaving a goal difference of 31 — qualification has never been in doubt.
But as Southgate himself acknowledged, the group was far from testing and it would be unwise to read too much into the thrashings that his team has handed out to modest opposition.
With the expanded size of tournaments making qualification much easier, the process for the traditional power-houses in the game is now as much about developing a squad and a style of play, than it is about simply picking up the necessary points.
Southgate is perfectly at ease with that process – his strengths so far have been in squad development, bringing in young players and building a tight team ethos.
But now he faces something new — genuine expectation of success from the public and media for a tournament which while played in 12 nations, will effectively be a home competition for England.
The semi-finals and final will be held at Wembley and after reaching the last four in last year’s World Cup in Russia, it would be a major letdown if Southgate’s side did not improve on that finish.
Southgate believes his side have progressed since the semi-final loss to Croatia in Moscow but hopes that, as with two years ago, his squad can come together even more in the final months of preparation.
“We’re definitely further ahead than we were heading into Russia, but we made massive strides in this period when we went into Russia,” he said after Sunday’s 4-0 win over Kosovo in Pristina.
“We’ve got to make sure that, to get the level of performance next summer, we’re going to have to improve in the way that we did over that spell as well,” he added.
Southgate will have no concerns about his attacking options — skipper Harry Kane has 12 goals in qualification, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford have established themselves on the flanks with Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi backing them up. Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham is the likely cover for Kane in the central striker role.
The midfield is less settled but Harry Winks has ended qualification in excellent form and looks a good bet to be the link-man.
The defensive holding role remains up for grabs with Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson the most established player for that position with Declan Rice yet to totally convince and Eric Dier in need of an upturn in form to regain his slot.
The defence has not yet been truly tested, however, with the attacking nature of Southgate’s full backs leaving them potentially vulnerable to counter-attacks.
Southgate acknowledged that much remains unknown about his team, such as how will they cope when put under intense pressure by opponents in a game with everything on the line.
“What we don’t know, because we haven’t had those tests more recently against the top eight or 10, is exactly how we’re going to cope in those moments,” Southgate said.
“To win the European Championship is, at the moment, no easier than the World Cup. The final four (at the 2018 World Cup) were all European, and you’ve got to add Spain, Germany, Portugal and all the others into that, so it’s a really high-level tournament.”
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Christian Radnedge)