Kane goal seals victory but England fail to do more than the minimum again
Three thoughts on England's 1-0 win vs. Lithuania in World Cup qualifying.
1. Another uninspiring win for England
With the formalities of qualification completed, England began their preparation for next summer's World Cup in Russia in much the same way they have played over the last decade or so. The 1-0 win over Lithuania will have converted nobody to the international cause, but it did at least mean they completed another qualification process without losing a game, for whatever that's worth.
Harry Kane scored the only goal from a first-half penalty, after which England spent the remainder of the game -- stop us if you've heard this one before -- struggling to break down obdurate opposition, whose primary concern seemed to be damage limitation.
Gareth Southgate made seven changes to the team that laboured to a 1-0 win over Slovenia three days ago, among them debuts for Harry Winks and Harry Maguire, but perhaps more importantly the manager changed his system. Southgate had experimented with three at the back in a friendly against Germany earlier this year, but this was the first competitive game in which an England side had set up in that fashion since Steve McClaren's calamitous experiment against Croatia during the doomed Euro 2008 qualifying stage. Things turned out rather better this time around.
England took the lead after 28 minutes. Dele Alli broke into the area and, after Jordan Henderson headed a nice pass from Maguire down, he was rather clumsily taken out by Ovidijus Verbickas. Scoring a penalty for England was one of the few things Kane hadn't yet done in his career, having missed his previous one, but he changed that by slotting a perfect effort in off the left post.
As one might expect, England's defence was not exactly placed under the most strident pressure. A couple of set pieces in the first-half caused some problems, but the closest Lithuania came to a goal was when Michael Keane directed a cross towards his own goal; Jack Butland dived brilliantly to save.
Of the fringe players given a chance, Winks was quietly impressive, moving the ball around from a deep midfield position smartly in much the same way as he has done in his relatively brief domestic career. Wing-backs Kieran Trippier and Aaron Cresswell didn't quite provide the barrage of quality crosses you might want them to, but Maguire did well and would appear to be ideal for a three-man defence, given his comfortable on the ball.
But this was another sleepy affair for England. As Southgate has freely admitted before, this team has a long way to go if they are to make any impression on the World Cup.
2. Southgate experiments with a new formation
It made perfect sense for Southgate to experiment with his system for this game, a friendly in all but name. With so many club sides playing three at the back it must be a viable option for the national team, but the question now is whether the formation suits England when their first-choice players are all available.
At present, the best four attacking players are Kane, Alli, Marcus Rashford and Adam Lallana. The latter should be fit again by the end of the year, so Southgate essentially needs to find a system to get the best from all of them. The good news for Southgate is that the quartet is adaptable; the most obvious way of fitting them together would be in a 4-2-3-1, but they can also fit 3-4-3.
Lallana will play a deeper midfield role for Liverpool so could slot in beside a holding player like Henderson or Eric Dier. That might not look like the most secure, but there has been plenty of talk this week about a lack of quality central midfielders in the England set-up and Lallana is as good an option as any other.
The other obvious benefit is that Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, both absent on this occasion, are perfect wing-backs. They were brilliant in those roles for Tottenham last season so it makes sense to use them there for England, not least because Southgate has few natural, in-form wingers available to him.
One suspects that Southgate's default formation will be a more familiar and comfortable one, but at least this game showed he is thinking about alternatives.
3. No rest for the star men
While credit should be given to Southgate for making a change in system, you could argue that he didn't make enough changes in personnel.
Admittedly he was in a slightly difficult position, as ideally he would want to get at least some of his first-choice players acquainted with a different formation, hence the inclusion of Kane, Henderson and Gary Cahill.
But, equally, all of those players have experience of playing in a similar arrangement for their clubs, so the benefit of 90 minutes on an artificial pitch against a side only kept off the bottom of the group by Malta will be minimal. They will gain little from a tactical point of view.
With that in mind, it was surprising Southgate put another game on the clock of Kane, in particular. The captain will play the majority of Tottenham's games and opportunities for rest will be few and far between for England's best player, so this would have seemed a perfect chance to sit him.
Equally Rashford and Alli could probably have done without the extra exertion, given their respective schedules and the latter's relatively poor recent form. You could almost hear the expletives coming from the houses of Jose Mourinho and Mauricio Pochettino.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.