Four wins out of four
Much like the World Cup group stages were hailed as a triumph, the European Qualifiers have proven surprisingly entertaining with the new format seeming to invigorate mid-ranking sides enlivened by the prospect of qualification. But while England appeared immune to the fun on offer in Brazil, they’ve also avoided any of the subsequent drama this season.
Germany, Spain, Netherlands and Portugal have all suffered defeats in Euro 2016 qualifying. Meanwhile, England’s 3-1 win over Slovenia makes it four wins from four in Group E. It may not have been exhilarating but it only requires a cursory glance at the results around Europe to appreciate that the Three Lions are faring better than most so far this season.
Mixed bag in midfield
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That’s not to say that Roy Hodgson’s men looked like a team set to end 50 years of disappointment when they reach France the summer after next. England produced no shots on target in the opening 45 minutes and it was only when the fear of defeat hit them that they were sparked into action. Much of the problem seemed to stem from a dysfunctional diamond in midfield, although whether the issue was Hodgson’s tactics or the vagaries of form is unclear.
Jordan Henderson, whose own goal provided Slovenia with their fleeting moment of hope, looks to be a man some way short of his best. After a dismal outing against San Marino in his previous Wembley appearance when he found a team-mate with just 70.7 per cent of his passes, Henderson struggled again and mustered a completion rate of just 65.5 per cent in the first half an hour here. Neat and tidy has been his mantra but he now seems to be trying too much and it was a feature of England’s midfield with Liverpool team-mates Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling similarly wasteful early on. The trio surrendered possession 31 times in the first 30 minutes.
Rooney still a key man
It seemed as though such sloppiness would prove costly when Lallana gave away a needless foul that saw Slovenia swing in the cross that Henderson headed beyond Joe Hart, but England were left grateful for the presence of their captain Wayne Rooney on the occasion of his 100th cap. The forward has sometimes been styled as a disappointment since his explosive start at Euro 2004 but he’s still starring for Manchester United and England and is closing in on the all-time goalscoring records for both club and country. He remains a key figure.
It was Rooney’s forceful dribble into the box just moments after Slovenia’s goal that bought the foul from Bostjan Cesar and he duly blasted the resulting penalty past Samir Handanovic to make it 44 goals for England. Only Sir Bobby Charlton and Gary Lineker stand above him now and he deserved a memory with which to remember the night. The Opta data shows that Rooney created more chances than any other player on the pitch and it was a performance worthy of a man reaching 100 caps for his country.
More goals for Welbeck
Alongside Rooney was his former Manchester United strike partner Danny Welbeck and the duo certainly shared a few old-fashioned looks as well as the goals. Welbeck’s decision to shoot high and wide rather than play in his colleague with a simple return pass brought scowls from Rooney but in a sense it was encouraging. The Arsenal forward is characterised as a selfless player but that masks a determination to be the main man - something that was a key factor in his move to London. Welbeck wants to score goals and he came up with two of them to win the game for England.
The first was a scuffed effort that drifted its way into the corner but the second was superb as he played a delicious one-two with Sterling before slotting calmly into the net. Welbeck’s tally of 13 goals from 31 games means he has overtaken the likes of Teddy Sheringham and Sir Stanley Matthews, while he’s now just one behind his former United team-mate Paul Scholes. More significantly, he has scored 10 goals in 12 starts playing as a centre forward and is out on his own as the top scorer in European qualifying. It’s food for thought for Hodgson when Daniel Sturridge returns to full fitness.
Big chance for full-backs
With Glen Johnson out of favour and Leighton Baines injured, there were opportunities for debutant Nathaniel Clyne and Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs in the full-back positions. Clyne, the seventh player to appear at right-back for England in the past year, offered the greater purpose going forwards even if there was the occasional lapse such as when he was caught in possession and booked for the subsequent foul in the second half.
Even so, Clyne is entitled to feel he has done enough to earn further opportunities on the right and can at least count himself as a natural in the role unlike rivals Calum Chambers, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. Whether Gibbs can feel as confident with Baines and Luke Shaw to return to the squad is less certain. He was good enough on the night but will need to do more to convince. Much like this England team.
Watch England in action against Scotland on Sky Sports 1 HD this Tuesday