Southgate criticism fair?

World Cup-bound England play Lithuania in last qualifier

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Lithaunia 0-1 England: No frills at the LFF Stadium as Kane converts penalty

By Daniel J. McLaughlin

This is Gareth Southgate's England: they dominate, they score, but they fail to thrill; they get the job done, but it is hardly entertaining to watch. When the Three Lions sealed their qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia against Slovenia last Thursday, the last-minute victory was greeted by a muted response at Wembley. It is efficient football – however, it's not crowd-pleasing.

It was business as usual at the LFF Stadium with England controlling possession, and simply getting the job done, with no frills service. Both sides had nothing to play for, bar pride: England have qualified, Lithuania cannot. The points in the Group F game mean nothing, but it did provide Southgate the opportunity to test his side, and use it as an exercise for his tournament preparation.

The England boss admitted before the game that the Three Lions lack "big players", and he used the clash against Lithuania to nurture the young talents. His starting line-up had the average age of just over 24 – the youngest England since 2002. He handed international debuts to Leicester City's Harry Maguire and Tottenham Hotspur's Harry Winks, with the latter impressing as though he had been playing for the senior side for a while now – simply doing his job in midfield, treating it as a normal day in the office.

Maguire could have secured the dream start for his England career when he narrowly missed a chance in the first five minutes. The 24-year-old defender nearly caught an Aaron Creswell cross with his head, six yards out, but the ball managed to evade him.

Dele Alli was awarded a penalty on the 25th minute when the Tottenham midfielder was brought down after latching on to a Jordan Henderson header. The 21-year-old waltzed past the defenders in space, and ahead of the ball, but Ovidijus Verbickas caught Alli who fell. The referee did not hesitate and immediately pointed to the spot.

Harry Kane continued his fine goalscoring form by converting the penalty. He relied on the inside of the post for the ball to bounce in, and Ernestas Šetkus had no chance for the save. The goalkeeper dived the right way, but could not get near it.

Winks almost came close when the teams returned for the second half, jinxing his way past the defender to earn enough space. The midfielder hit an effort from 15 yards out, forcing Šetkus to get two hands on it with a lovely save. At the other end, Lithuania nearly did not have to rely on their own players to get on the scoresheet. Caught at the back, Michael Keane tried to turn the ball behind for a corner, but his clearance resulted in a shot on his own goal. Jack Butland was able to dive low and push it out, sparing his defender's blushes.

At times, it felt like a training exercise as Gareth Southgate's side adjusted to three at the back - the first time this had been adopted by the Three Lions in over 10 years. They need a bit more practice on their set pieces, with corners and crosses often failing to get past the first man. When it eventually did, courtesy of a Henderson cross after the hour mark, Creswell's header from the back post was kept out by a diving save from Šetkus.

The revised formation was not without its flaws, with England neither attacking well nor defending particularly well, either. They were exposed when Lithuania players found space - in particular when substitute Deivydas Matulevičius reacted to a flick on, but the Hibernian striker hit it straight at Butland.

The game lacked excitement, but it was effective as England finished as Group F leaders without a single loss (eight wins and two draws). Here's hoping that the Three Lions are saving the entertainment for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

England play Germany in a friendly at Wembley next on Friday, November 10 (K.O. 8pm).

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