Three games into the qualification campaign for Euro 2016 and England top Group E with a 100% record. The flawless start would generally be considered positive news but the performances against San Marino at Wembley and Estonia in Tallinn have left a familiar air of apathy regarding the national side. With just seven matches remaining in the campaign, can Roy Hodgson’s men stay unbeaten in European Championship qualifying for the first time?
After that perfect start – in terms of points if not performances – England are now a heavy odds on option with Betfair to win Group E ahead of the 2016 tournament. With qualification all but guaranteed for the Three Lions, Hodgson has the opportunity to bind his side together and develop a distinct style ahead of the finals in France.
An incisive performance at St. Jakob Park in Basel back in September was the perfect start for a young English side as a brace from Danny Welbeck in the second-half secured three points in arguably the most difficult match the campaign will offer.
Tiredness takes over
Subsequent performances however lacked the same ruthlessness and the debate over Raheem Sterling’s ‘fatigue’ has overshadowed activity on the field with Liverpool’s 19-year-old prodigy causing a media furore by reportedly complaining of ‘fatigue’ ahead of the match in Estonia. Sterling has started each of Liverpool’s opening ten matches following the World Cup in Brazil and, at face value, could surely be forgiven for his honesty.
The subsequent headlines inevitably focused on the political angle between Hodgson and Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers whose relationship had previously been put under pressure in the wake of Daniel Sturrdidge’s injury. But beneath the controversy lies a more simple and promising narrative. A side with an average age of 24.91 have won their opening three qualification matches, scoring eight goals and shutting out the opposition on each occasion.
It’s worth considering what the ‘best case’ scenario could really be? A comfortable win against a good Switzerland side followed by the demolition of two European minnows wouldn’t offer any change to the dynamics of the group and would prove little.
England’s greatest striker?
Wayne Rooney’s 43rd international goal in Tallinn sees him now just one strike behind the great Jimmy Greaves in the all-time top scorer chart. Indeed, going into Euro 2016, Rooney could well be England’s most prolific centre forward. Bobby Charlton’s haul of 49 is just six goals away and the Manchester United striker continues to work towards the record whilst his overall legacy continues to cause debate.
In addition to the prospect of a maturing Sterling and with Rooney approaching his peak years, the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson are all firmly finding their feet for both club and country. Although a relatively straightforward qualification campaign may not offer much in the way of competition, a quiet platform to work from may be ideal for Hodgson’s plan.
It’s possible that England could follow in the footsteps of Germany and Spain who both had perfect qualification campaigns for Euro 2012. Whilst it wouldn’t leave European counterparts quivering, a perfect group would offer an injection of positivity where it is all too often absent.
Hodgson has always maintained that he has a strong selection of quality players and it appears that there may be a promising balance developing in his group. The most testing fixture in the section – an away tie to Switzerland – has already been dealt with and while a 100% record wouldn’t be deemed spectacular, it could make the mundane displays slightly more memorable ahead of France 2016.