Thumping a mountain-top microstate may not bring Gareth Southgate any closer to answering the many questions which surround his side before this summer’s European Championship, but at least England are three points and five unanswered goals nearer to World Cup qualification after this routine victory over San Marino.
There were no bumps on this first leg of the road to Qatar as Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s brace and Ollie Watkins’ debut goal added to strikes by James Ward-Prowse and Raheem Sterling at an empty Wembley. This really could not have come any easier to England. The only concern for Southgate will be that his players should probably have scored more against the lowest-ranked side in international football.
5-0 flattered San Marino, all the same. Your typical David and Goliath FA Cup third round ties between top-flight and non-league opposition are usually more competitive than this. England had 32 shots on goal, 85 per cent possession but for an illustration of just how dominant they were, only one visiting player completed more passes in the first half than Sterling’s seven shots on goal during the same period.
How much can we learn from these games, then? Not much. Take the goalkeeping question, for example. Nick Pope’s opportunity to impress in Jordan Pickford’s absence ended without him facing a single shot on target and just four touches of the ball. And having appeared to settle on a back three during the autumn, Southgate reverted to a 4-3-3 formation. Is this now the way forward? Who can say?
Meetings with Albania and Poland over the course of the next week will tell us more in that regard. But even when allowing for the standard of opposition, there were encouraging displays from the likes of Ward-Prowse, Reece James, Ben Chilwell and the returning Jesse Lingard. And Southgate will be happy to see the qualifying campaign get off to a winning start, regardless of the standard of opposition.
The breakthrough arrived early, inside the opening quarter-of-an-hour but could have come sooner still. Calvert-Lewin, Sterling and John Stones were all guilty of spurning simple close-range chances before Ward-Prowse opened his international account with the most challenging opportunity of all, sweeping Chilwell’s low cross into the far corner on the turn from inside the penalty area.
With no Trent Alexander-Arnold around, James made the most of his chance to stake a claim for a starting berth before being removed at half time. Several of the Chelsea right-back’s impressive pinpoint crosses went begging before Calvert-Lewin finally connected with one, outmuscling Cristian Brolli to power a downward header past goalkeeper Elia Benedettini for England’s second.
It was hard not to feel sorry for San Marino at times, such was the clear gulf in quality, but they did not exactly help themselves either. A strange insistence on playing out from the back led to England’s third, with Brolli giving the ball straight to the lively Mason Mount. The Sammarinese centre-half’s pain did not end there, though. One pass in behind allowed Sterling to step around Brolli and hit a deflected shot over Benedettini.
Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham were among those introduced at the break while Watkins was handed his debut midway through the second half, though only once Calvert-Lewin had his second goal of the night. Lingard had the chances to score himself on his return to the international fold but walked away with an assist after darting in behind San Marino’s defence and playing a low cross which the Everton striker side-footed in.
Watkins’ finish was just as cool. Seven minutes from time, Torquay’s first-ever England international - its 65,000 population still twice that of San Marino’s - side-stepped the surrounding defenders after more good work down England’s left and square pass. A sweeping right-footed strike nestled inside the far post. And with that, there was no need for any stoppage time when the 90 minutes was up. Tougher tests await but England, unsurprisingly, make a winning start.
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