England's first two matches since Gareth Southgate's appointment as full-time manager saw them lose in Germany and beat Lithuania. Here are my observations.
I was surprised by Gareth Southgate’s use of a three-man defence in last week’s friendly with Germany but, although England lost 1-0, the experiment was a success.
Players appeared to know their positions and looked as if they had played in that system together before, even though they hadn’t, while Michael Keane, who is used to playing in a back four, did tremendously well in an unfamiliar role.
Southgate was always going to revert to a four-man defence for the lesser threat of Lithuania, but now these players have another situation they can feel comfortable in and England another string to their bow.
I didn’t expect the previously uncapped Keane to be so at ease at international level but the Burnley centre-back showed no nerves whatsoever in two rock solid performances. Top marks.
The other player who really seized his chance was Jermain Defoe, who scored against Lithuania in his first England appearance since 2013.
He made it look easy but it was a fantastic finish and a major boost to his hopes of playing at next summer’s World Cup, aged 35.
Defoe didn’t just contribute on the pitch; for other members of the camp to describe him as a model pro illustrates how much younger team-mates can learn from him in training and off-field.
While nobody played poorly over the two games, some still have work to do to convince me they should be first-choice selections.
Joe Hart still seems troubled by a nervousness that never used to be there and he’s perhaps fortunate to have kept the No1 jersey. If Jack Butland had stayed fit, I think he’d be first-choice goalkeeper.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s performance in central midfield against Lithuania also left something to be desired.
His selection was strange given he has played more on the flanks, but Southgate obviously knows what he can do – he just hasn’t shown us yet.
Jordan Henderson is the obvious pick alongside Eric Dier in central midfield, but with the Liverpool man missing England lacked something.
Like a lot of people, I’d have liked to have seen Ross Barkley make an appearance, though he has been playing further forward for Everton and I’m not sure he’s someone you can depend on to sit deep.
England require legs and work rate in that position, but more than anything they need to move the ball more quickly.
They need to keep possession but use it in a more penetrative way.
Verdict so far
I detect an air of confidence and a sense that the England squad know what they are trying to do since Southgate took charge.
He seems to have a clear vision, has been unafraid to make bold decisions – like picking Keane, Defoe and Oxlade-Chamberlain – and has shown tactical flexibility.
Players seem to be enjoying the quick, progressive football, and it helps that he clearly has a good relationship with many of them from their time with the under-21 side.
Full credit to Gareth for what he’s achieved so far and I think it’s only going to get better.