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5 things we've learned about England going into Russia 2018

Yes, England have officially qualified for next summer's World Cup. Get the flag out of the loft, help clear the nation's stocks of red and white face paint, then down 10 pints. It's coming home. 

Victory in Russia is, of course, a mere formality for Our Brave Boys (until we wake up, give ourselves a little slap in the face and then return to the real world). It was nice while it lasted. 

So what have we really learned about the Three Lions since they first kicked a qualifying ball in Slovakia, Sam Allardyce glugged down a pint of wine while being secretly filmed and Gareth Southgate's trusted hands took the reins?

1. Southgate is no yes man

Southgate has been all too happy to tell a few home truths about his England players since taking charge – perhaps surprisingly so for the many who considered him an FA pet brought in as a PR-safe choice. With 12 players missing through injury for the latest game against Slovenia, though, Southgate pulled no punches in admitting that "you could well argue there are one or two in the squad who haven't necessarily warranted it on their performances."

We have to get off the island and learn from elsewhere... but we have a lot of work to get to that point

It's not the first time he's laid down the gauntlet; in fact, he pretty much set such a tone from the start. Before his first game in charge as permanent manager, against Germany, Southgate said: "We have to get off the island and learn from elsewhere. We have some great strengths, and if we couple those with some other traits we could be more powerful than anybody – but we have a lot of work to get to that point." 

So far his talk hasn't really inspired greatness. In reality, England's qualification from an easy group tells us nothing more than previous campaigns have done – after all, the Three Lions also qualified unbeaten for Euros 2012 and 2016, plus World Cup 2014 before failing miserably. In June they were hopelessly outclassed by France; in March, beaten by Germany. He's only 11 matches in, managing a pleasingly young side – but it doesn't feel like England are closing the gap yet. 

2. Three-man defence an option – but probably not first choice

In many ways it makes sense: it's a system deployed by many of the country's finest sides, and which plays to the strengths of England's flying full-backs in particular. Southgate has dabbled with it in those aforementioned friendlies against France and Germany – arguably Europe's strongest two teams – but hasn't been comfortable trying it in competitive fixtures. Time is running out if he's planning to change that before Russia. 

The system naturally lends itself to a team with better attackers than defenders

Could it work long-term? There's a case to be made. Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, John Stones, Eric Dier, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane have all thrived in sides using three-man defences, and the system naturally lends itself to a team with better attackers than defenders – as is most certainly the case with England. 

But that could also be its downfall. England's most problematic area is at centre-back, and using a three-man defence would in effect encourage fielding a substandard player in place of someone else further forward (like Marcus Rashford, for example). Dier could be key to making it work successfully – if indeed Southgate is willing to work on it in more detail. 

3. There's hope in the youth... somewhere

Harry Kane; Dele Alli; Marcus Rashford; Raheem Sterling. All four have been terrific for their club sides so far this season, and all look likely to carry on that way under top managers before the World Cup commences. Despite all of the doom and gloom, England do have some of Europe's brightest attackers – and they're in form too. 

Kane is now among the world's best strikers, and could conceivably – and quite deservedly – captain the Three Lions in Russia. He, like the other players aforementioned, have been proving their mettle in the Champions League too so far in 2017/18 – all excellent experience before another crack at international honours. Don't forget too, that World Cup 2018 will be these players' second taste of tournament football (or third in Sterling's case). There shouldn't be any bewilderment this time.  

4. England really do need a new No.1

Joe Hart is still capable of having commanding games - as he proved in the 0-0 draw in the reverse of this fixture a year ago - but he lacks the crucial strength of a top goalkeeper: consistency. The West Ham man can still make good saves, but for some time now he's looked like a goalkeeper with a mistake in him – similar to those he made against Iceland at Euro 2016 (*shudder*).

Another costly error could have come in the first 15 minutes of this game after Hart appeared to catch Josip Ilicic’s foot with his hand inside the area, only for the referee to wave play on. Southgate has shown faith with the long-time netminder, but little so far shows that Hart has recovered his confidence after a patchy couple of years. Is it time to let Stoke’s Jack Butland or Everton’s Jordan Pickford have a run in the England side?

5. Fan expectations are at a low (which may not be bad)

For anyone who remembers the elation of David Beckham’s free-kick against Greece 16 years ago – a seminal moment which sealed the player’s public rehabilitation and England’s place at the 2002 World Cup – confirming qualification for Russia 2016 seemed the dampest of squibs.

Of course, that's to do with the lacklustre nature of this 1-0 win against Slovenia, plus a general expectation that England will qualify for major tournamants now. Yet even if they'd won 3-0 with a Kane hat-trick, you can hardly imagine widespread elation.

That’s because the public’s expectation of England is at a modern low. It's been said in the recent past, but not really meant as it is now. Frankly, there’s zero public belief that England can win the World Cup in Russia, there’s no superstar in the Becks or Wazza mould, and in charge is a manager who nobody sees as a saviour.

The silver lining to that grey cloud is perhaps that England can actually go to Russia without major pressure. Can it help? Is the collective meltdown we saw against Iceland at Euro 2016 any less likely thanks to the reduced weight of expectation? Who knows - but it can hardly makes things worse.  

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