Jermain Defoe’s return to the England team is long overdue and he gave Gareth Southgate’s side an edge that they might have otherwise lacked here this afternoon. But 76,000 people did not come to Wembley to see England dispatch Lithuania, as much as to get a glimpse of the next generation of this side and where Southgate intends to take them.
Southgate has the right ideas for this team but realistically he has arrived too late to transform the thinking and style of these players in time for the World Cup in Russia in 15 months’ time. That will surely be a bridge too far for these players given what happened in Brazil and in France.
But two years after that there is a European Championship spread all over the continent which climaxes right here at Wembley. And while this was as far away from that competitive intensity as imaginable, it was still natural that the mind should wander towards the semi-finals and final of that tournament which will take place here.
It is impossible to know how good England will be then, three and a bit years from now, but we can safely say that Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling will be among the top players in the world by then. They are still so young, Alli is 20 and Sterling is 22, and yet they play with a maturity and authority that England’s creative players have lacked for years.
Alli and Sterling are clearly two certain starters for Southgate, crucial parts of his 4-2-3-1 system. He wants England to play with aggression, freedom and style and that is exactly what they guarantee. Both Sterling and Alli were always keen to press up against Lithuania’s flat back five, as you would expect from players coached at club level by Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino.
Both Sterling and Alli always wanted the ball and to take on opponents. It was Sterling who created England’s opening goal, bursting down the line from a standing start and cutting back a clever cross which Jermain Defoe converted. His final ball has come on immeasurably since he started working under Pep Guardiola and he gives England a directness and an incision that they need in order to stop themselves from going round in circles.
Alli, often operating with his back to goal and in very confined spaces, was always trying to wriggle himself free to get a shot away or play in a team-mate. With his change of pace and long strides he loves having space to attack but here he had to play a different game. He even got a kicking, as he often does, receiving a few questionable challenges from Linas Klimavicius in particular. But he handled it, kept taking the ball, never responded, and ultimately Lithuania could never lay a legal finger on him.
All of which might sound excessively confident after a game which did not mean much, but the fact is that England have two very special young talents in Alli and Sterling and it is impossible to conceive of them doing anything at all in the next five years without them.