MANAGER Gareth Southgate acknowledges England have to improve, but has warned there is only so much that can be achieved before the World Cup.
Thursday’s win against Slovenia ensured qualification for the finals in Russia with a match to spare, yet the manner of the 1-0 defeat of Slovenia underlined concerns about the Three Lions.
England’s plodding display meant supporters found attempts to aim paper planes at the pitch more entertaining than matters on the field at sparsely-filled Wembley.
Enthusiasm for the national team continues to wane and Southgate has previously warned there is “no magic wand” to improve matters.
Yet a year into the senior job – and having spent a long time working in youth development –there is hope.
The manager said: “We know we need to evolve the team and there’s a desire to evolve the team, but also we had to keep winning to qualify because for any of the young players to improve, they’ve got to go to a World Cup.
“It was imperative: they have to go to a World Cup.
“In some areas, we think we can look at different things. In some areas, we know where we want to evolve towards.
“Some of that can happen before Russia, some can’t because in certain areas there are maybe young players in our system who aren’t going to be ready for the next 18 months, two years.
“But what we have to do is look at what we have got. What are we really good at?
“We have got goalscorers and we have got some attacking players that we think will cause problems to any team in the world.
“Then around that we have got a structure of a team to go and win football matches.
“I would love us to be dominating with 80 per cent possession against the best teams of the world, but there is little evidence of that over the last five (years) – there’s no real evidence of that over the last 50 years.
“But what would be my desire and ideal way of playing and what we have to do over the next year are maybe two different things.
“What is the role of the manager? Well, in the end it is to win matches and making sure we qualified for the World Cup was crucial.”
Harry Kane’s late goal saved England’s blushes on Thursday and, as well as defending his group, Southgate called for patience and understanding with the players.
“I think what the team have been through over 18 months, and as a young team with what they have to deal with in terms of expectation, criticism of their performances, it’s tough for them,” he said. “It really is tough. I think they’re young players that we have to try and get behind. They’re giving everything they’ve got.”
Southgate knows just how heavy the Three Lions’ shirt can weigh, having won 57 caps and, most pertinently, missed the penalty that saw them exit Euro 96 in the semi-finals.
That is the last time England threatened to win a major competition, while the closest they have gone to replicating the World Cup-winning feat of 1966 came 27 years ago – a tournament when the pressure was on the now revered Sir Bobby Robson.
“We are a country that has high expectations and you have to keep delivering,” Southgate said.
“I’ve seen Bobby Robson get to a World Cup semi-final and was hammered up probably until the quarter-final stage.
“I am able to rationalise it all, I understand it completely. All I have to do is keep winning football matches.”
Southgate is looking to build that winning feeling against Lithuania, the final competitive match before the World Cup finals, albeit the qualifier is a dead rubber.
“There will be England supporters going to Lithuania and we have a duty to put a performance on. We want to stay unbeaten, we want to go and win the game.
“There are one or two players we’d definitely like to have a look at and it’s one of very few games we have now to build towards the World Cup.”
Match-winner and captain Kane described it as a dream come true after England stumbled to qualification for the World Cup. Kane poked home Kyle Walker’s cross in the fourth minute of stoppage-time.
“I’m extremely proud, not just for myself but for the team, for the nation,” Kane said.
“We should enjoy it, it’s no easy thing getting to a World Cup. There are some big countries around the world that are struggling. I’m delighted, the team are delighted.
“To lead that team out and to have the game pan out like it did, as a striker you dream of that kind of moment, scoring a last-minute winner, so for that to happen here at Wembley is incredible.”
Slovenia had chances themselves and could even have won the game had Joe Hart not made a brave double save late on.