England are five points clear in their group. There are two matches to play. Even for England – who have actually been tediously reliable qualifiers this century – this is hard to mess up, they are as good as booked on their luxurious jet to Russia.
It has obviously not halted criticism, which was most prevalent when they were booed off the field in Malta last week. Gareth Southgate praised the fans at Wembley on Monday night, but even then there was an underwhelming turnout for what was a pivotal group stage match.
International football is in a dire state, and England’s inability to excite is indicative of it.
There is a belief amongst some that England’s historic standing in the sport is of some relevance. A thought that England are better than this because they are England, that they can conquer all. This could not be further from the truth.
It is not only false, but it reflects a culture in the English game that leads to short-term planning and result-based thinking. Focussed aggressively on winning their group, as if it will all magically be fixed come tournament time.
Without delving into the deeper developmental problems in England, there are simple issues we can see from looking at a squad list right now.
This is not a squad lacking talent as is the easy excuse, but it is a squad short of balance. That too is of no fault of Southgate, the options are not there to change this significantly.
It is a fact that England do not bring through technicians like other nations. The sort of players who can find cracks in well-built defences, the players who thrive on pockets of spaces between the lines.
Adam Lallana is the one England regular who can come close to this currently, and his absence was felt hard against Malta and Slovakia.
England’s depth across the rest of the squad is impressive. There are numerous goalkeepers deserving of an opportunity, several young centre-backs who could make a strong claim for a spot in Russia and full-backs galore.
England’s collection of strikers is clearly led by Harry Kane, but the supporting cast are satisfactory at the very least.
Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Dele Alli and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are the other attacking options. These four all have their merits, but none of them are creators. Alli is charged with that responsibility, though his role is similar to a supporting striker.
Rashford, Sterling and Chamberlain do not offer the same guile as Lallana, or the playmakers they each play with on a weekly basis in the Premier League.
As a result of the talent on offer in the attacking midfield positions, Lallana would slot into a deeper, central midfield role. This is where England’s problems lie. Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier and Jake Livermore all started for England in the previous two matches, and – aside from when facing the strongest nations – only one of these players should be playing.
There is no Lallana mark II available – that’s a problem for a different debate – and England are woefully short in the centre of the pitch as a result.
On the chance that there is no Lallana next summer, England are in trouble, and their 20/1 price looks too short. Teams will know an organised defence can stop them in their tracks, and a set piece goal and long range strike to overcome Slovakia do little to change that.
A squad and clutch of youngsters that deserve optimism are being undermined by England’s weaknesses in the middle. It is not a fallibility that can be solved simply, but a sign of how players of that ilk are not given the opportunity to grow.
Southgate will take the blame for England’s dearth of progressive midfield passing, even though this problem runs far deeper. His task, however, is to find a combination of the current players to minimise the impact of the uninspiring middle third.
England are eighth favourites to win the World Cup in 2018. The predictions for this team will no doubt fluctuate massively in the next eight months. The frustration, for the most part at least, is that there are the beginnings of a strong squad, but the answer to the midfield conundrum is unknown.
Lallana is the key, though that relies on a leap onto the front foot from Southgate, and leaves question marks over the line-up against more challenging opposition.
PREDICTED XI: Pickford, Walker, Cahill, Jones, Rose, Henderson, Lallana, Rashford, Alli, Sterling, Kane
How would this starting 11 perform at the World Cup next year? Let us know your thoughts at @888Sport or @SamRCox_.