England are two points away from qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. A win against Slovenia would see them qualify automatically while Slovakia and Scotland fight it out below them for a place in the play-offs.
As far as group leaders go, they are one of the lowest scoring teams in the UEFA qualifying section with 16 goals from the eight games they’ve played so far. An average of two goals per game doesn’t seem too bad, but when you consider the group contains teams such as Lithuania and Malta, who they only managed to put two past in their games against these sides at Wembley, then it becomes apparent that the England attack hasn’t quite been firing as well as it should.
Belgium have already qualified for the World Cup, scoring 35 goals in the process; Spain are on their way to qualification having scored 32; Germany also broke the 30-goal barrier with a haul of 35; while nine other clubs have scored more goals than England during the qualifying phase at the time of writing.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism, as the main goal of any qualifying section is to qualify. But at the same time it’s also helpful to use these games to develop a style in competitive games, and look to improve any areas which may need some work prior to the tournament proper.
A glance at the goal-scoring exploits of the current squad highlights the issue further. Other than Harry Kane on 10, the only other player in double figures is 34-year-old Jermain Defoe, who isn’t expected to be a starter.
There’s no doubt that other players in this group will go on to reach double figures, but there is currently a lack of goal-scoring experience at international level, which may be part of the reason for Defoe’s inclusion.
A front three of Raheem Sterling, Kane, and Marcus Rashford should probably be tried and tested for England now, but the trio have only played one minute of football together. In the game against Slovakia at Wembley, Sterling entered the field only for Rashford to depart a minute later.
Individually they are all making great strides, none more so than Kane who is subject of Real Madrid transfer talk thanks to his impressive array of goals. The Tottenham Hotspur goal machine has been termed both ‘old-fashioned' and ‘modern centre forward', and this is probably just an indication of how complete a forward he is rather than an error from those describing him thus.
Old-fashioned or modern, whatever the terminology used to describe them; a good centre forward usually has a number of tricks up his sleeve and is able to score goals in a variety of ways. One of the greatest — Alfredo Di Stéfano would take games by the scruff of the neck if he wasn’t getting the service of if his team weren’t at the top of their game — and all the best forwards throughout history up to the present day have done this.
And speaking of great strikers, Rashford, when asked a question about how much of his game is taken from former Manchester United man “Ronaldo”, eventually deflected the question referring to Cristiano onto another of the greatest forwards of all time, Ronaldo of Brazil.
“Brazilian Ronaldo has had the biggest World Cup performances. And his were among the most enjoyable to watch,” he said.
Rashford is a box of tricks whether he plays on the wing or up front. His fairly unique gait makes him stand out: with head up and shoulders back until the time comes beat a defender, or execute the final shot or pass, his skill on the ball can surprise defenders. They expect him to be more straight on and less inventive, but they soon realise he’s not to be taken lightly.
Playing alongside Kane, the 19-year-old whose rise top has been welcome but abrupt for club and country, could cause serious damage to opposing back lines should their manager use them in the right system, using the right style. Rashford has already been compared to Kylian Mbappé, and though this may be a step too far, even being mentioned in the same sentence as this future Ballon d’Or winner is high praise in itself.
Raheem Sterling is perhaps the least talked about of this trio, and he’s gone under the radar somewhat during City’s excellent run of form. There were even murmurs that he would look to move clubs in the next transfer window or next summer, such is the competition at City, but there is no reason for him to move and given his form the club wouldn’t want him to.
Taking into account Premier League and Champions League games, their No.7 has four goals from four starts, and has found the net twice coming off the bench. It’s fair to say that he’s involved in goals and involved in the team. He’ll now be looking to bring this to the international scene where he currently only has two in his 34 caps.
The three players are all exciting prospects individually, but as a team they could take England to new levels if used correctly. Gareth Southgate now has some serious talent on his hands, and the next couple of competitive games before his side qualify for the World Cup could be seeing them come together at just the right time.
With two games remaining, maybe they can’t reach the heights of those teams with 30-plus in the goals for column, but they could at least make their expected table-topping of Group F look a little more convincing.