THE consequence of drawing to Hungary last month is that England still have some work to do to secure automatic qualification for next year’s World Cup in Qatar.
Granted, this work merely takes the form of beating either Albania or San Marino across the final international break of 2021 but still, the luxury of experimentation is denied Gareth Southgate, a luxury that looked to be on the cards after five opening wins saw England initially race away in group I.
If Poland breathing down their neck, just three points adrift, is a source of annoyance to Southgate and the England camp it should only be that and nothing more. Albania may be seriously under-valued by those who persist in viewing them as minnows, and they undoubtedly will be a tough nut to crack at Wembley this Friday evening, but a loss to a country ranked 63rd in the world would still constitute a major shock. Defeat to San Marino meanwhile would pretty much invalidate England’s right to participate in any major tournament for the foreseeable future, so inexcusable it would be.
Final camp of the year. Let's go! pic.twitter.com/AOf9TqAfCa
— England (@England) November 8, 2021
Yet all the same, while results are necessary, we can expect the arch-pragmatist Southgate to revert to his tried and trusted means that took the Three Lions on a long Euro adventure last summer without being remotely adventurous. For the duration of these forthcoming fixtures, two holding midfielders will patrol the centre-circle while Jack Grealish and Phil Foden will not share a single minute of game-time.
This can almost be stated with certainty and not solely because there is a job that needs to be done and caution is Southgate’s default setting. Against Hungary back in October, the Careful One unexpectedly lowered his guard and went a little gung ho, deploying an attack-minded set-up with only Declan Rice sitting. Despite mustering a semi-respectable 11 efforts on goal from 64% possession England appeared flat throughout and Southgate won’t be going against his natural instincts again anytime soon.
It will therefore be a familiar line-up facing the Albanians, with Harry Kane very likely entrusted to spearhead England’s forward line despite his desperately poor showings that stretch all the way back to last summer and don’t be surprised either if Raheem Sterling starts, again despite enduring a disappointing season to date. Harry Maguire meanwhile will surely feature at the back and this completes a triumvirate of reasons why Southgate’s promise once made – that players will always be picked on form, not reputation – should be retrospectively scoffed at. The defender’s confidence is presently shredded, to such an extent it appears at times that he has forgotten how to defend.
These trio are integral to England’s model: it is their leader at the back and a duo who have scored 35 of England’s last 50 goals in games where both strikers have started. Yet all three are arguably the most high-profile flops of 2021/22 so far and this obviously is Southgate’s biggest concern ahead of a crucial double-header.
There are issues too with withdrawals, though it should be said, that is usually the case. On this occasion Luke Shaw, James Ward-Prowse and Marcus Rashford have pulled out while Mason Mount’s arrival is delayed due to dental surgery.
Elsewhere however, there remains plenty of positives. The aforementioned Rice has consistently been superb for a West Ham side punching above all expectations this season and last, while partnering Maguire is John Stones, fresh from restricting Cristiano Ronaldo to just a singular touch in the opposition penalty area throughout last weekend’s derby. In Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka, England possess youthful creativity to spare and, given Kane’s struggles it matters that Tammy Abraham is an able and assured deputy right now. The 24-year-old scored in his most recent game for Roma and notched his second international goal last month. Finally, the call-up of Emile Smith Rowe is an exciting proposition even if he will likely enjoy a cameo at best. The Arsenal youngster has scored five times this term and assisted twice.
Marcus Rashford, James Ward-Prowse, Mason Mount and Luke Shaw have all pulled out of the England squad.
Emile Smith Rowe has joined the senior squad for the first time in his career. pic.twitter.com/JFMlSxWEzN
— Football Tweet ⚽ (@Football__Tweet) November 8, 2021
So, who are Southgate’s men coming up against? Let’s start with San Marino because there’s really not a lot to say. This is a team that has lost twice to Andorra in this group. Andorra. This is a team that has conceded an average of four goals per game across their campaign. This is a team whose track record against England from seven previous meetings divulges an aggregate score of 1-42.
Albania, by way of contrast, are made of far sterner stuff. Coached into shape by the long-in-the-tooth Edoardo Reja – who first stepped into a dug-out when Pep Guardiola was still in infants – they have won exactly half of their fixtures in 2021, only being comprehensively bested once at the hands of Poland. Elsewhere, contests have been nip and tuck and perhaps this hardly surprises because so many of their stand-out players are defenders. Elseid Hysaj, Marash Kumbulla, and Berat Djimsiti – the latter of whom is available again after fracturing am arm earlier this season – all excel at varying levels in Serie A.
Up front, Armando Broja poses a genuine threat after quickly establishing his considerable potential at Southampton. The 20-year-old has scored three times and assisted twice in his last four international outings.
It would not be the most shocking development if Albania got on the score-sheet but regardless, England are fancied to prevail. They have a job to do and under Gareth Southgate they tend to be done, if in unspectacular fashion.