LONDON — Three quick points from England’s 2-0 win over Lithuania in World Cup qualifying on Sunday afternoon.
1. England cruising towards Russia
England’s qualifying campaigns tend to feel a little like administrative procedures these days, the football equivalent of filling in the right forms in order to be allowed access to an exclusive club. Once in there, they tend to get thrown out well before midnight after making fools of themselves, but the business of getting there has become increasingly joyless.
Or, if you want to put it another way, efficient. That’s probably the best way to describe the latest result, a 2-0 victory over Lithuania, the 107th-ranked team in the world, that put England on a steady course for World Cup 2018 qualification.
This sort of hassle-free progression is probably what the Football Association had in mind when they appointed the steady Gareth Southgate as manager, so in that respect, it’s a job well done, so far.
Jermain Defoe and Jamie Vardy got the goals that put England in sight of another qualification. The test will not come until the tournament itself, but until then, Southgate can satisfy himself with another act of routine competence.
In the opening stages England dominated possession but were disjointed, unable to conjure the wit to break through a deep-lying Lithuania defence. But in the 21st minute, they took the lead, Raheem Sterling breaking down the left, reaching the byline before pulling back to Defoe, who could barely miss from 7 yards out.
For the rest of the half England essentially played like 11 men who had been told by their club managers they shouldn’t return to their day jobs too tired, and absolutely under no circumstances injured. Adam Lallana buzzed around and looked for neat passes, Defoe made runs and Sterling darted down the left a few times.
But the closest to another goal before the break came when Joe Hart was beaten to the ball by Nerijus Valskis and John Stones was forced to hook the header away before it snuck over the line. Hart looked around — with some justification — as to why the assistant referee’s flag was not raised for offside, but having been virtually unemployed for most of the half, he flapped when presented with his first task. Not particularly reassuring.
The first portion of the second half followed much the same pattern, England trying plenty but being denied by some tight ranks and doughty Lithuanian defending. The most notable aspect of the game was the rather robust approach to tackling the visitors employed: Hopefully Tottenham coach Mauricio Pochettino wasn’t watching, because the number of times Dele Alli’s ankles were targeted might have significantly troubled his blood pressure.
Defoe made way for Vardy after an hour, and within six minutes the lead was doubled. Lallana and Alli exchanged neat flicks and Vardy was presented with time and space in the area, which he used to slip the ball past Ernestas Setkus.
England will probably not learn a great deal from this game, other than justification for the recall of Defoe. Michael Keane was solid on his first international start (but then again, didn’t have much to do), Alli continues to look like England’s best player and the two full-backs, Ryan Bertrand and Kyle Walker, stretched play well. But for now, three points collected on a quiet evening in north London.
2. Deadly Defoe strikes on international comeback
The last time Defoe scored for England at Wembley was seven years ago. He got a hat trick against Bulgaria that day, and after he was omitted from Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2014 squad, the then-Toronto FC striker’s international days looked over.
And not without reason. His only competitive goals in the interim were against Moldova and San Marino, and his departure to MLS didn’t exactly suggest a player who would form a crucial part of England’s future.
That’s probably still the case, but his renaissance at Sunderland, where he has scored 56 percent of his doomed team’s goals this season, brought him back into Southgate’s thinking. He displayed against Lithuania that while Harry Kane is still England’s best centre-forward, and this might not say great things for the rest of the nation’s strikers, he should probably be included in any squad he’s still willing and available for.
A couple of years ago, Defoe altered his lifestyle to reflect his advancing years. He stopped drinking alcohol, much of his diet consists of salmon and steamed vegetables, he allows himself coffee only on match days and for the rest of the week he drinks green tea and water. Not the most exciting life perhaps, but this was a man who recognised he didn’t have too many years left in the game, and he was going to make them as good as possible.
Defoe, 34, is in fine shape, and while those bursts of pace have gone, he remains as sharp as ever, his movement smart and efficient, able to find pockets of space in which to maintain his status as one of the best scorers in the Premier League.
To have 14 goals while playing for the worst side in the division is quite a feat, and Defoe emphasised that having a poacher like him around is always useful for any team. Not long after Defoe scored, over in Azerbaijan, the 31-year-old Mario Gomez found the net for Germany.
If you’re good enough, you’re young enough.
3. More wobbles for Hart
If you spend a little time in Hart’s company, the chances are you’re going to be fairly impressed, on a superficial level. He speaks well, usually straightforwardly and with plenty of honesty. He fronts up, you see: This is a player who can get a good degree of credit for admitting to his and the team’s shortcomings, after those shortcomings are made plain on the pitch.
He might be so good at it because he gets plenty of practice. Claudio Bravo’s indifferent season at Manchester City has been evidence enough for some that Pep Guardiola made a terrible mistake by casting Hart out to Torino. But Hart hasn’t presented an unanswerable case that Guardiola’s mistake was to get rid of him, rather than to sign Bravo.
It often feels slightly harsh to be excessively critical of goalkeepers, on the basis that a basic error from them is much more noticeable than one, say, from a left winger. It might also be harsh to be excessively critical of England’s goalkeeper, since they are the only team yet to have conceded in the European section of this qualifying campaign.
But Hart’s performance at Wembley would surely have been punished by a better team. Other than a relatively routine save early in the second half, his mistake at the end of the first 45 minutes was really the only time he was called into significant action. It barely mattered that Valskis was offside: The point was that Hart completely misjudged a relatively straightforward save, and very nearly donated a goal to Lithuania.
Hart is the established goalkeeper, but he hasn’t done much to earn that status lately. He is helped by Fraser Forster’s poor season for Southampton and Jack Butland’s continuing injury problems. Tom Heaton might be an alternative, but he is relatively inexperienced in high-level football.
It remains to be seen what happens to Hart next season at club level, but Southgate will hope that his form improves, or else England’s first-choice goalkeeper will continue to form a troublingly unreliable last line of defence.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.