Qualifying proved to be a walk in the park, so what are England capable of doing at Euro 2016?
England’s 3-0 win over Lithuania in Vilnius on Monday night completed a seamless qualifying campaign for the Three Lions. Preparations can now well and truly begin (if they haven’t already) for next summer’s European Championships in France, so now is a good time to ask; how far have England progressed since the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and what are their chances of success next summer?
Most would agree that Group E was hardly the ‘group of death’, and so it proved. England won all ten qualifying matches, scoring 31 goals and conceding just three in the process. Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino were little more than cannon-fodder, against whom England could simply build up their goal difference.
Switzerland are a decent side, but they’re not going to win Euro 2016, and England beat them 2-0 in both matches. Slovenia punch above their weight in footballing terms, and they probably gave England the most problems in qualifying, but they’re the kind of team that are happy just to qualify for a major tournament. England beat them 3-1 at Wembley and 3-2 in Ljubljana.
In this sense, it is difficult to gauge if there has been any meaningful progress from England in the last eighteen months, given that the standard of opposition has generally been so poor. England were able to walk through the group without having to really get out of third gear, and without ever really establishing what their best starting XI might look like.
Roy Hodgson can however claim with plenty of justification that he and his team can only beat the teams that have been put in front of him, and that they have done without a hitch. This is the first time England have ever qualified for a major tournament with a 100% record, and whatever may be said about this group, England couldn’t really have done anything more.
It may also be worth noting that, as all qualifying draws are seeded, there are no real ‘groups of death’, and teams like Germany, Spain, Belgium and Portugal, despite also having similarly easy groups, all lost matches on their way to qualification, and the Netherlands, after a disastrous campaign, look like they won’t even qualify at all.
There were fears that expanding Euro 2016 from 16 to 24 teams would only dilute the competition, and make qualification for the big teams even easier than before, but this didn’t prove to be the case. It incentivised the smaller teams to perform, knowing that a place in the Euros was there for the taking, and in turn forcing the bigger teams to perform well enough to get the required results.
As a result, we will be seeing the likes of Wales, Northern Ireland, Iceland, Romania, Albania and Austria in France next summer. These teams knew that had a rare opportunity to qualify, and they took it, in turn giving the bigger teams a few sleepless nights, none more so than the Netherlands. England faced these same potential problems against smaller but newly-incentivised teams, and yet they went on to be the only team to qualify with a 100% record.
Nevertheless, there are no trophies for qualifying, and when it comes to the tournament itself, it would be wise to expect the likes of Germany, Spain, France and Italy to be as strong as ever, and should those teams perform, England will have to be at their absolute best to compete.
Over the course of November and March, England have friendly matches against Spain, France and Germany, which will hopefully give Hodgson and England a greater indication of where they stand relative to the competition, but if Hodgson wants to win these games, and make England contenders next summer, he needs to start nailing down what his preferred system is, and what is best starting XI might look like.
Given the amount of chopping and changing there has been this campaign, as well as taking into account the fluctuating form and injuries of players for their club sides, that will be no easy task, such that if ten pundits were asked to select England’s best starting XI, they would probably give ten different back-fours, ten different midfields and ten different forward lines.
For now, this is the XI I would pick for England’s opening match at Euro 2016, assuming everybody is fit. Feel free to come up with your own:
(Formation: 4-2-3-1) Hart; Clyne, Cahill, Stones, Baines; Wilshere, Henderson; Walcott, Rooney, Sterling; Kane
Depending on the form and injuries of players between now and June, this XI could very well change several times as the likes of Danny Sturridge, Danny Welbeck and Luke Shaw prove their fitness, while a case could also be made for the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ross Barkley and Chris Smalling among others to be included in the XI. That is the challenge Hodgson must face over the next eight months, and the sooner he settles on his preferred line-up the better.
So going back to the first question: Have England progressed since the 2014 World Cup? That is not easily answered, and we may get a better idea of this in November when England play Spain and France. One way or another though, England have done everything that has been asked of them thus far, and with a young side that is getting more experienced at international level, England should hopefully have a better team in 2016 than in 2014.
And what can they achieve in France next summer? Well if Greece could win Euro 2004, then theoretically anything is possible, though not too many will bank on England going all the way. A pool-stage exit would be nothing short of a catastrophe, and England should have enough quality to get beyond that. At this moment in time, a place in the quarter-finals would probably be a realistic goal. Anything beyond that would be a welcome bonus.
In sport though, anything can happen. Just ask the Greek side of 2004.