Gareth Southgate was pleased by England’s comfortable start to World Cup qualification, picking out returning Jesse Lingard and inventive Mason Mount for praise after the thrashing of San Marino.
Four months on from bringing the curtain down on a challenging autumn schedule, the Three Lions kicked off what they hope will be a year to remember with a straightforward first step towards Qatar 2022.
England were always going to beat the world’s lowest-ranked nation and cruised to a 5-0 victory against San Marino at Wembley, where Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored a brace and could have had more.
James Ward-Prowse, stand-in skipper Raheem Sterling and debutant Ollie Watkins also netted on a night when Southgate made four half-time alterations with the Albania and Poland qualifiers quickly following.
Those matches will be more of a test than that provided by the 210th best team in the world and are the final two fixtures before the England boss names his squad for this summer’s rearranged Euros.
“Of course it’s not the level of game that is going to dictate how well we can do in the summer,” Southgate said of the win against San Marino.
“It’s not the right level of comparable but you’ve got to respect the game that’s in front of you and approach it in the right way.
“And within that, it was an opportunity to work attacking patterns and it was an opportunity to produce consistent habits that need to happen in every single game.
“So, there are things we’ve taken from it, from the training in the week, which beds through to the next couple of games as well.
“But also individuals who’ve given good performances that can be very pleased with their evening’s work.
“So, we managed to keep freshness in the team, which was very important for the three games this week.
“One yellow card at the end (for substitute Tyrone Mings), which if we’re being critical about the finishing, ideally no yellow cards tonight, but very pleased with the evening’s work.”
Among the positives was the way rejuvenated Lingard performed on his return to the England side.
The 28-year-old has been in superb form since joining West Ham on loan from Manchester United in January and looked bright on just his 11th appearance for club or country this season.
“I thought Jesse was excellent,” Southgate said of Lingard, who last played for the Three Lions in June 2019.
“First of all, really pleasing to see him playing football, enjoying his football, playing with a smile on his face.
“We know the qualities he has. We gave him his debut 50 games ago and why did we do that? Because he’s a player that technically is good, passes and moves, has intelligence in the positions he takes up.
“He works incredibly hard without the ball to pressure and to win the ball back.
“So, in the main, my first thought is how lovely to see him back playing at the level that we think he can be.”
Lingard led the voting for Thursday’s man of the match award – something Mount may well have challenged him for had he not been withdrawn at half-time with Sunday’s trip to Tirana in mind.
The Chelsea midfielder has established himself as a key player under Southgate and created eight chances from open play in just 45 minutes.
“He’s a top player,” the England boss said.
“Not only his work with the ball, but the way he pressed when we lost it, the way he recovered and won the ball back on the rare occasion San Marino managed to play through.
“His weight of pass was excellent and his all-round game is just very good.
“So, I was just struck last night when he was talking to you guys (in the media) how mature he was in that instance.
“But we’ve got so many good young players.
“Phil (Foden) coming on, Jude (Bellingham) coming on – obviously he’s a lot younger than the others – but they are different types of players who really express themselves on the ball.
“It’s lovely to see players wearing an England shirt and feeling free enough to do that.”