With World Cup qualification confirmed in Thursdays snoozeathon at Wembley this dead rudder was a friendly in all but make.
Gareth Southgate’s pattern as manager has been to go low risk in qualifying and experiment in the friendlies. For the qualifiers Southgate has identified his best players (Kane, Lallana, Walker, Alli and latterly Rashford) and fill the gaps with the most experienced team players available (Hart, Cahill, Bertrand, Henderson). The result has been dull but solid with qualification never seriously in doubt. It’s been unpleasant viewing but probably the correct approach- Steve McClaren went for bold changes in qualifying and look how that turned out!
With nothing at stake Southgate switched to a 3-4-3 and made 7 personnel changes including debuts for Harrys Maguire & Winks.
Let’s be honest this was never likely to be a classic, this had the feel of a Europa League away tie (minus tension).
England started well and after 5 minutes an excellent Aaron Cresswell cross was almost headed home by Maguire. England were very neat and tidy but struggled to provide any penetration. Again Cresswell from a set piece saw England go close- his teasing cross fell to Michael Keane who struck a half volley just wide. On 27 minutes England made the breakthrough when a Alli one two with Jordan Henderson invited a clumsy challenge and from the resulting penalty Kane dispatched into the left hand corner 1-0.
If fans were hoping this would spur England on and force the Lithuanians to abandon their back 8-1-1 formation they were soon disappointed as the half petered out.
Lithuania started the second half on the front foot and got off a few potshots. At the other end Cresswell dug out another good cross which eluded Kane but fell to Winks on the edge of the box who forced a good save. The Lithuanian’s started to open up and a neat cross saw Keane almost put the ball through his own net but was saved by a smart Butland stop. The game started to wind down with a full 20 minutes to go with a few neat breaks from Lithuania and sub Daniel Sturbridge making a nuisance of himself but clear cut chances were few and far between. But a neat lofted ball from Winks almost put Maguire in for a debut goal but it didn’t come off and it finished 1-0.
Ultimately this wasn’t a good performance but it was a bit better than Thursday night and we could see some reason for cautious optimism in the performances of Winks and Maguire whilst Cresswell provided some quality from the left, it was however a disjointed performance with neat moments of skill not quite coming off and long periods of sideways passing.
It’s been a strange week in English football. I’ll write another piece about the media reaction and some of the good, bad and idiotic points raised. The England senior side are in a dark place at the moment- it’s odd to be writing that in the week they qualified for a World Cup but it’s true. However the performance of Winks hinted at better days to come. On the same day England’s under 17s opened their World Cup campaign by thumping Chile 4-0 with Jadon Sancho yet again looking a superstar in the making.
England have got the talent but we need to be patient, for now setting a nucleus in place and improving the side enough to give the kids a stage to play on has to be the goal. Lowering our immediate expectations and looking for improvement is where we stand as fans right now.
One thing recent England games have reminded me of was the pre Meszut Ozil Germany team of 2009. At the time Germany looked a compact functional side who Capello’s high flying England easily dispatched in a friendly that autumn. Then of course Ozil was promoted from the Under 21s who provided incision and creativity and set the Germans on the road to success.
I’m not saying Winks is going to be Ozil (besides Pochettino reckons he’s more like Iniesta!) but bringing through the young creative talents is the best way forward as England make small steps forward.