We’ve seen teams slip up against sides like Albania in the past, and Gareth Southgate took precautions to make sure that wasn’t the case for England.
The Three Lions saw off the Albanians on Sunday with a comfortable 2-0 victory in Tirana thanks to goals from skipper, Harry Kane, as well as in-form attacking midfielder, Mason Mount.
It was a step up from the opponents that they’d faced earlier in the week, and chances were much harder to come by than during their walk in the park against San Marino a few days earlier.
Plenty was said about Southgate’s decision to play both Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips against a side that could be seen as being there for the taking, but while there was nothing to really shout home about in an attacking sense – the decision certainly served its purpose.
Albania are a potential banana skin – even though England haven’t lost a World Cup qualifier since 2009 – and while playing both Rice and Phillips isn’t as gung-ho as using a Jesse Lingard or James Ward-Prowse, it’s a bit more pragmatic.
Rice in particular stood out, and it’s looking more and more likely that he may well be putting himself in line for a starting berth in the European Championship when they roll around in a few months’ time.
The 22-year-old West Ham United man – who was the talk of Twitter after being ghosted by his skipper following his opening goal – made more accurate passes (108) and interceptions (5) than any other player on the field, and also made the most clearances (3) of any England player.
Remarkably, Rice misplaced just three of his 111 passes throughout the entirety of the game, and he also won 100% of the aerial duels that he went up for.
His role in helping West Ham’s impressive rise up the Premier League has definitely stood him in good stead for what could be a big decade for him and this current crop of players – and Southgate clearly likes what he’s seen.
There will be times when the England boss shifts the formation up to best combat the opposition that they’re facing, and we should get a better idea of what he sees as his strongest XI on Wednesday night when they face their toughest Group I challengers, Poland.
The Polish challenge took a blow today when it was confirmed that Bayern Munich hitman, Robert Lewandowski, has been ruled out with a knee injury – something that may well lead to a change of tack from Southgate.
England are blessed with an array of attacking young talent that is spearheaded by one of the best strikers in the world in Kane, but just because that talent is available doesn’t mean defensive precautions shouldn’t be taken.
Games like Albania are a chance to work on that, and the players involved passed the test. Two goals, a clean sheet (making it six in a row for Nick Pope) and another three points in pursuit of a spot at Qatar 2022.
Now it’s time for a real test on Wednesday night.