On nights like these it is necessary, as an international manager starved of action, to take the positives.
Watching England hustle their way through the dogged white shirts of San Marino, in a match that increasingly took on the tone, shape and even the sound of a half-stifled yawn, one obvious positive presented itself. This won’t have to happen again for a while.
How bad are San Marino? How long is a circular row of empty red plastic seats? From first minute to last, with lots of quite long individual minutes in between, this was at no stage a competitive sporting event.
It was instead an act of slow-burn sporting euthanasia. It was 90 minutes of dancing with a tailor’s dummy. It was at best some welcome cardiovascular exercise, a brisk walk around north-west London while some men in white shirts shouted in Italian.
Some perspective is necessary, of course. San Marino is a small range of hills. Its team here, enthroned by the Fifa rankings as the worst in the world, contained a car salesman and just two full-time professionals. No elite level prep for these amateurs during lockdown. San Marino has suffered terribly during the time of Covid-19. Here there was at least the release of a Wembley date, and a performance of commendable determination.
For England, well, it was three World Cup qualifying points. Nobody got injured. The players looked focused and energetic. If there was an obvious high point it was the fifth goal in this 5-0 win, scored by Ollie Watkins on his debut, to his obvious and hard-earned delight.
Beyond this Gareth Southgate will be cheered by the performance of James Ward-Prowse in a role that is, as things stand, still a slight tender spot in this England team.
In the buildup to this game Ward-Prowse didn’t get much mention during the debate about the makeup of England’s midfield pivot. There are two main choices here. Firstly the double-bolted defence, most likely made up of Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson, which is in reality a lot more than this given the range of both players.
Secondly there has been talk of something more “split” and progressive.
Mason Mount has been mentioned, despite not playing there much for his club. Options are thin on the ground is the general take, to so much humming and hawing you half-expected someone to turn around and ask Ward-Prowse himself. We need an all-round defensive-passing central midfielder – can you think of anyone? In the event Ward-Prowse started here as the central man in 4-3-3, the attacking version of the Southgate template, which allows an extra creative player. On an otherwise mundane night at Wembley he delivered a fluent, balanced display, decorated with the game’s opening goal.
Ward-Prowse doesn’t have a Champions League pedigree. Aged 26, this was just his fifth cap. But he is an intelligent footballer who provides what Roy Hodgson might call a polyvalent midfield offering, or a bit of everything. Plus, he’s brilliant at set pieces. This is not to be taken lightly. England’s World Cup success was built around delivery and movement from restarts.
Here Ward-Prowse’s corners had the familiar dip and whip. A second-half free-kick was well-saved by the excellent Elia Benedettini. Besides this he just looks like an international footballer, a wiry, balanced, head-up kind of figure. He has a relentless scuttling energy, passes the ball quickly and shifts his body with an easy natural balance. A 5-0 stroll against San Marino didn’t reveal this (San Marino were exhausted after half an hour, exhausted by their own mismatched gravity). But the performance offered a reminder.
Ward-Prowse will, with any luck, make the European Championship squad from here. If Henderson is unfit he looks a good specialist option in the centre, and undoubtedly a more interesting one than Eric Dier, who is often praised for his versatility, although right now this seems to mean the ability to play forgettably in not one but two positions.
The Southampton man’s opener came on 14 minutes. He surged from deep and finished nicely as the ball was cut back by Ben Chilwell. It was his ninth of the season, to go with five assists in a team that have struggled.
Either side England just kept on missing chances in new and creative ways: a full-stretch shank, a leaping shoulder-header, a scuffed roundhouse half-volley, and at one point a stunning aerial scissor-kick slice. By half-time Sterling alone had taken seven shots at goal and hit the target with only one, a nice finish for his 12th England goal.
It seems likely this England attack had too many runners and not enough playmaking against a team that sat so deep. But by the hour mark this had become little more than a training run against a row of semi-mobile footballer-style humans. England will take the best bits and move on.
Ward-Prowse pressed his case. Watkins will always have that lovely moment.