England’s 3-0 victory away to Lithuania on Monday saw Roy Hodgson’s side become only the sixth team to complete a European Championship qualifying campaign with a 100 percent record.
Stern tests now await in the shape of friendlies against Spain, Euro 2016 hosts France and world champions Germany, when Hodgson is expected to put his first-choice starting XI to the test.
Here are five issues the England manager will be chewing on over the coming months:
What to do with Rooney?
The qualifying campaign proved a historic one for captain Wayne Rooney, who scored his 50th international goal in last month’s 2-0 home win over Switzerland to set a new national scoring record. But despite having netted 10 times in his last 12 international games, some sluggish displays for both England and Manchester United have called into question his claim to an automatic starting place. When deployed as a lone striker, he can struggle to influence games and some prominent football journalists have called for him to be dropped.
England’s defence has appeared reasonably settled in recent matches, with Joe Hart the clear first-choice in goal behind a central defensive pairing of Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling, whose vastly improved form for Manchester United has seen him relegate Phil Jagielka in the pecking order. Liverpool’s Nathaniel Clyne, meanwhile, has started seven of England’s last 10 games at right-back. But elegant Everton defender John Stones is a strong contender for a starting berth at centre-back and Hodgson also has a dilemma at left-back, where injuries to Luke Shaw and Leighton Baines have created a vacancy.
Is there a role for Barkley?
Everton playmaker Ross Barkley was the stand-out player in England’s final two qualifiers, producing an assist in a man-of-the-match performance against Estonia and then opening the scoring in the win over Lithuania. Hodgson remains reluctant to talk up his chances, instead highlighting the need for the 21-year-old to improve his decision-making, but if a place for a creative central midfielder can be found in the first XI, Barkley is in pole position to claim it. “He’s a typical young lad — he can be inconsistent, he can do some silly things,” former England goalkeeper Peter Shilton told BBC Radio 5 Live on Tuesday. “But the main thing is, if you give him the ball often enough, he’s going to create something and he’s going to score goals.”
Settling on a shape
During last year’s World Cup, England’s 4-2-3-1 formation led to them getting overrun in midfield and Hodgson changed tack in the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. His side now line up with three players in the centre of midfield, either in a 4-3-3 system or the 4-4-2 shape with a midfield diamond that they used at the start of the campaign. The diamond system, with Raheem Sterling operating as a number 10 behind Rooney and Danny Welbeck, proved an instant success, but injury to Welbeck has seen Hodgson switch to a 4-3-3. The fitness of key individuals such as Jack Wilshere, Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge could determine which shape England adopt in France.
The great unknown
England could not have qualified in more impressive fashion, but they have been here before. They won nine of their 10 qualifiers prior to the 2010 World Cup and went unbeaten in qualifying for both Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup, only to disappoint at each respective tournament. It is a routine of which England’s fans have grown weary and as Hodgson himself has acknowledged, there is nothing, yet, to suggest things will be any different in France. In tournament matches against other leading nations, England are frequently let down by their game management and can appear frazzled when events conspire against them. “We’re not deluding ourselves,” Hodgson said recently. “We can be rightly proud of the achievements since the World Cup, but we know there are big games ahead.”
– Agence France-Presse