1) Hints of progress under Southgate
Given how low the bar was when Gareth Southgate came in, the first thing he had to achieve to be able to point to progress was avoid becoming embroiled in a national scandal or humiliation. It is thumbs up on that front for now and there is circumstantial evidence of progress beyond that. After an honourable defeat by an improvised Germany team, England showed against Lithuania just enough speed and clever movement to unhinge opponents who aspired to do nothing more than erect human barricades around their box from the first minute. Both goals were beauties but there were also bouts of familiar stodginess. At least Southgate has made some bold selections, defetishised the captaincy and suggested he is a man with a plan and the strength and clarity of thought to implement it. The true tests lie ahead but Southgate has made a fair start.
2) Big crowd contributes to harmless fun
The bar for measuring the performance of England’s fans also starts low. At Wembley there were, at least, no war chants or loutish nonsense and silence prevailed throughout the Lithuanian national anthem, which was followed by respectful applause from the hosts. The minute’s silence in memory of the victims of the Westminster attacks was also observed with decorum, as was the tribute to the late Graham Taylor. Once the game got going the mood in the ground was fun. The visit of the team ranked 107 in the world for a seemingly foregone conclusion of a match did not quite draw a full house but an attendance of 77,690 seemingly good-humoured people was still a fine turnout. The sight of Jermain Defoe leading out the team with five-year-old Bradley Lowery was also lovely. Hope springs eternal.
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) March 26, 2017
3) Arsenal representative makes little impression
With Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere all failing to develop as hoped and Danny Welbeck still working his way back from injury, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was the only Arsenal player with a chance to enhance his international credentials at Wembley. But he did not seize the initiative. His passing was not as wayward as it had been in his last appearance for his club – that miserable defeat at West Bromwich Albion – but nor was it particularly sharp or inventive. If he was included because he was expected to offer more thrust than Jake Livermore, he generally did not fulfil his mission, although he did force a save from Ernestas Setkus with a fine shot in the 53rd minute. Nor did Oxlade-Chamberlain contribute as much dynamism as Jordan Henderson or Ross Barkley probably would have. He was not bad but, all in all, this was an opportunity missed for him.
4) Hart does little to inspire confidence
Aside from taking part in the coin toss, Joe Hart basically had two jobs to do in his first home match as captain and he did not do either very well. Granted he should not have been called on to intervene just before half-time because Vykintas Slivka was several yards offside when a clearing header dropped into his path, but the referee allowed play to continue and Hart was found wanting as he bungled his attempt to tidy up, mis-timing his challenge as Slivka headed the ball towards the net. Fortunately for the goalkeeper John Stones got back to clear. Furthermore, given Hart spent most of the match observing play, this was an occasion where he could have proved he is, in fact, useful with his feet by contributing to buildups. Jack Butland occasionally did that for England’s Under-21s under Southgate but Hart preferred to play safe and looked jittery the few times he had to kick the ball.
5) Walker’s raids on the right carry real menace
Several England individuals offered flashes of thrilling class throughout the game: Raheem Sterling when he created the first goal with a nifty run and pass; Adam Lallana when he set up the second with a tasty flick; Marcus Rashford when he was introduced from the bench and ran at opponents with directness and skill; and Kyle Walker, who hurtled up the right wing from start to finish, threatening to dislodge the Lithuanian defence nearly every time and delivering a couple of exquisite crosses. The Tottenham full-back’s marauding is becoming a regular feature of England matches and, if he continues to improve, he may finally get his name on the scoresheet, which he has not yet done in 25 appearances from his debut for the national team against Spain six years ago.