Their qualification for Euro 2020 now secured, tomorrow Gareth Southgate starts the process of settling on his England squad for the tournament in essence.
The former Middlesbrough player and manager insists he goes into it with nothing set in stone.
England are in Pristina tomorrow evening with their place at the next European Championships secured by Thursday’s 7-0 win over Montenegro, but Southgate is keen for another three points to secure a good seeding.
There will be changes – he has already confirmed Raheem Sterling will come off the naughty step after being dropped for a training-ground altercation with Joe Gomez at the start of the week, and Jordan Henderson is available after suspension – but not so many as to risk victory.
Southgate is experienced enough to realise the best-laid plans do not always come to fruition. England have a recent history of key players going down with injury on the eve of tournaments – some missing out, others playing when it might have been best if they had – and has plenty of talent on the fringes, at least in some positions, to keep his preferred picks on their toes.
“You just don’t know who’s going to be available, who’s going to be in form,” he pointed out. “We’ve got a fairly settled squad of players who have been with us in the last 18 months who are still in our thinking and we’re always learning about our players – more in the really big matches and the high-pressure games.
“We feel the team on Thursday was extremely young (England’s youngest XI since 1959), the squad is young, and we’ve got to get the balance right with that, but these are in most cases our best players, we think.
“Although next summer is going to be before a lot of them peak, we can still be hugely competitive and our challenge is to be able to compete, as we found a way to compete in Russia (at the last World Cup).
“You’d like to have a settled team and if we had to pick our best team tomorrow we’d know what that was but that best team can change over the next six months with form, certainly with injury. We’ve always got to prepare, and keep the squad involved in the best possible way.
“We could invest in securing an XI now and come March three or four could be out.
“Ox (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain) is a classic example of that. We thought in March (2018) ahead of the World Cup he was in a really good groove to put in the sort of performances he did on Thursday and then he’s out and we have to go back to the drawing board.
“The good thing is we’ve got really good options in every position. We all remember plenty of tournaments where we’ve had a key injury on the eve of the tournament and we’ve all been in meltdown about what might happen.”
Southgate does not want those on the outside thinking they have no chance of forcing their way into the squad.
“We’re still looking at (Manchester City midfielder Phil) Foden thinking it’s a case of when rather than if (he becomes an established England international) unless something goes wildly off track,” he said.
“There’s some very talented players who aren’t with us at the moment, people like Dele (Alli). We have got incredible competition for places, particularly in those attacking five positions. We can’t just select on just the international games because there aren’t enough of them and the level of the opposition has been a certain level.”
Alli is not the only one of Southgate’s World Cup semi-finalists to have fallen from favour. Neither Jesse Lingard nor Kyle Walker have featured this season.
While poor form has cost Alli and Lingard, Sheffield-born Walker has been more a victim of the competition for places at right-back, where Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kieran Trippier – currently injured – and the versatile Gomez appear to be ahead of him in the pecking order.
What could encourage Walker, though, is Southgate’s decision to try to address the side’s defensive failings in central midfield by moving Alexander-Arnold there in Thursday’s second half.
He played there at the 2015 Under-17 World Cup, but has rarely been used there for Liverpool.
“I wanted to see Trent in there,” said Southgate. “It was something we’d been talking about.
“It’s not easy to put a player into a position he’s not playing regularly for his club but it was an experiment we definitely wanted to have.”
Sheffield United’s excellent defensive form has prompted calls for centre-back Jack O’Connell to be selected in an area where England are not so over-blessed with options.
But his chances of playing in the friendlies between now and the Three Lions’ first Euro 2020 game on June 14 would be better had Southgate not switched from the back three which took his side to the last four in Russia.
For Sunday’s game, Southgate is sticking to the large squad he picked ahead of the visit of Montenegro.
Tammy Abraham made a case to start in Pristina after scoring his first senior England goal from the bench on Thursday. He replaced captain Harry Kane, whose hat-trick extended his run of scoring in every game in the qualifying campaign. For Southgate, it will be about balancing experimentation with his desire for three points.
“We’ve got to make sure we give ourselves the best chance of winning in Kosovo and then we’ll look forward to the summer after that,” he said.
The six best-performing group winners will be the top seeds at Euro 2020, where England will play five matches at Wembley if they progress to the final.