The announcement of England line-ups will never be met with a wave of popular support. Their third qualifying match for UEFA EURO 2020 was no exception.
Club biases, outlandish expectations and wayward perceptions were all in evidence in the 90 minutes between announcement and kick-off when England hosted Bulgaria. They always will be.
The negative response is an instinct, a reflex. It rarely has much merit and it’s usually dominated by the type of supporter who combines his inability to process more than one piece of information at a time with the comforting reassurance of red-top righteousness.
Yet Gareth Southgate named a starting eleven against Bulgaria that was worthy of interrogation, and not just because the lads in the office don’t like Jesse Lingard because, well, they’re not really sure why.
No, this line-up was questionable for another reason. It was uninspiring. Perhaps as uninspiring as the available squad allowed.Embed from Getty Images
Kieran Trippier, dropped entirely when Southgate picked his UEFA Nations League finals squad, was chosen ahead of Trent Alexander-Arnold at right back.
Danny Rose, not in his finest form, was selected at left back ahead of Leicester City’s Ben Chilwell, whose match fitness is apparently lacking enough to make him a doubt but not an absentee from the squad.
Marcus Rashford. Ross Barkley. Jordan Henderson. A number of England’s starting eleven against Bulgaria were named despite the availability of more exciting, more in-form, in some cases younger options.
But Southgate’s job as England manager is one of balancing multiple seesaws at once.
Experience and assuredness must be balanced with youthful dynamism and development. Club form must be balanced with proven international reliability. Winning qualifiers must be balanced with preparing to win tournaments.
When it comes to striking these balances Southgate has earned the trust of England supporters whether it’s forthcoming or not.
In winning 4-0 against Bulgaria the England boss ensured that his methods remained out of reach.
2-0 wins against dogged, deficient opposition used to be routine for England. Now it’s 4-0 and 5-0, obstinate third-rate opposition handily dealt with in a manner that seldom occurred in the past.
The question that remains is whether winning 4-0 against Bulgaria will count for anything if England reach the quarter-finals next summer and find that the likes of Jadon Sancho, Harry Winks, Mason Mount and James Maddison fall short because of a lack of international minutes.
Southgate, quite rightly, first needs to make sure England qualify.
While the aforementioned prospects would probably have beaten Bulgaria, the team Southgate selected did. It left England top of Group A with three wins from three, and 14 goals scored into the bargain.
He will know it’s not that simple. He’ll also know his team did enough to keep quiet for now the tabloid end of any criticism.
The first half at Wembley was a stodgy affair. Krasimir Balakov’s 5-4-1 formation made life difficult for England, the irony being that three of the four goals were accidental gifts to their hosts, especially the first.
Plamen Iliev in the Bulgarian goal was in the brown stuff as soon as he tried to play out through an England press that never for a moment looked permeable.
Raheem Sterling stole the ball, steadied himself on the byline and cut back for Harry Kane to sweep home an easy opener.Embed from Getty Images
The visitors had already threatened Jordan Pickford’s goal on the break and would do so again – Trippier’s almost admirable demonstration of the finer points of difference between full back and wing back would see to that – but the truth is England won this match before the clock ticked into the 25th minute.
Bulgaria’s best chance came early in the second half and proved the end of their resistance. Wanderson took advantage of England’s vulnerable right, only to find Pickford equal to his effort.
35 seconds later the lively Rashford chopped back from his left foot on to his right and was tripped in slow motion by the flummoxed slide of Nikolay Bodurov.
Kane stepped up and smashed in the spot kick.
Sterling had been England’s most threatening player in the first half and was handed the simplest of finishes for England’s third. Rashford was instrumental in finding Kane, Kane unselfish in teeing up Sterling. He couldn’t miss.
The fourth goal came from another penalty, more contentious this time, but crystal-clear in real time and only less obvious after the television replays not available to the officials at Wembley.
The England captain mightn’t remotely be an angel when it comes to simulation but any striker who’s had their striking foot blocked even for a split-second will recognise the collision that resulted in England’s last goal.
Kane stepped up and smashed in the spot kick.
Of course he did. Practice makes perfect and true goalscorers will work for days on end if it adds to the tally.
The truth is it was as easy a victory for England as the 4-0 scoreline suggests, even if there was some huffing and puffing to be dispensed with in the early knockings.
Sterling was in fine fettle and Rashford, while his afternoon against a back five was far from simple, was effective in the shirt many of us would have given to Sancho.
Declan Rice was comfortable in the middle of the park, as happy dropping deep to take possession as he was stepping up alongside the relatively quiet Henderson and, in Barkley, a creative force who might have been the chief victim of Bulgaria’s stifling system.
Rose was a conundrum at left back. He rarely, if ever, put a foot wrong defensively. He was economical in possession and, as England eventually clicked through the gears in the second quarter of the game it was Rose who looked their most frequently available outlet.Embed from Getty Images
Yet his final ball – that little pass in the channel, that tempting cross after being played in behind – was too often wasted. It was obvious, though, that England were in those positions more often on the left than the right – and by some distance.
Sancho did get his cap and was more energetic than penetrative. Mount’s England debut came off the bench and his confidence was clear not because of a wildly ambitious shot on goal but because he looked very much at home.
England also welcomed back Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, one of a handful of squad selections met with open-mouthed puzzlement by supporters who seem to earnestly believe that any England manager is going to change his squad wholesale based on the number of club matches his players have under their belt since the last internationals.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cameo won’t appear in many match reports but its importance shouldn’t be overlooked.
England have a player we all take for granted, returning from injury and drafted in with open arms by Southgate. He showed flashes of his best – nothing more – but it was pleasing to see him at it again, to be reminded of who and what he is.
The idea of a fit Oxlade-Chamberlain not being in the England squad is laughable. That England have players in his position that can even hope to edge him out is thoroughly exciting for all of us.Embed from Getty Images
There was no paradigm-rocking learning to take away from England’s win over Bulgaria. No revelation. No calamity.
Yet Southgate will have learned a little about each of his players, how they fit into the system, how they handled what might, for England teams of yore, been a taxing task.
He’ll leave it to the rest of us to decide whether we trust him to learn enough to find a way back to Wembley next July.