Roy Hodgson showed how his side can play with the shackles off but can they display that freedom against stronger teams?
For most managers a match against Europe's weakest international side would not be an appropriate barometer of his selection decisions – but with Roy Hodgson things are slightly different. Hodgson is famed for his meticulous drilling of his team into a solid defensive shape on the training ground, a reliable approach for an underdog with limited technical players, but inappropriate when the onus is on dominating possession.
This, obviously, was a routine victory over a San Marino side that had been defeated in their previous 50 matches. "Getting the job done" was the official objective, but in a rare situation where England could concentrate on turning on the style, Hodgson's strategy was not irrelevant.
"Formations are always, to some extent, over-exaggerated," said the England manager on Thursday, before listing a set of more detailed characteristics he deemed more important to a side's play. But that should not detract from the simple fact Hodgson did change his shape for this game.
Having played a 4-3-3 in the impressive 2-1 victory over Brazil – when England pressed energetically and were positive in attack (everything you do not expect from a Hodgson side) – this was back to a simple 4-4-2, with Wayne Rooney partnering Jermain Defoe. Although a shape featuring three central midfielders is more desirable in the long-term, Hodgson's selection was suitable for the meagre challenge of San Marino.
Without the need for a permanent midfield anchorman, Tom Cleverley and Frank Lampard took it in turns to break forward while Ashley Young and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain maintained positions high up the pitch, drifting inside into goalscoring positions. Rooney and Defoe stayed in the box, with the latter practically waiting for open goals to present themselves.
It was, by Hodgson's standards, an adventurous approach – and yet there was still a hint of caution. He had dismissed suggestions Michael Carrick could be fielded as a makeshift centre-back, implying such a selection would be a damning indictment of his recognised defenders. Yet in modern football it's hardly an unreasonable idea – Michael Laudrup deployed the midfielder Ki Sung-yeung at centre-back in the Carling Cup final victory over Bradford, precisely because his defenders wouldn't be doing much defending.
Javier Mascherano, Sergio Busquets and Daniele De Rossi have been used in a similar role over the past couple of years, when the centre-backs' job becomes about distribution rather than destruction. In the opening stages Carrick would have been useful to keep the passing tempo higher – San Marino's ultra-defensive 5-4-1 formation (where even the nominal striker, Andy Selva, dropped back into midfield) meant England's centre-backs were stationed almost permanently on the halfway line, with no pressure from the opposition.
England actually profited more when they knocked the ball over San Marino quickly – Joleon Lescott's long pass towards Rooney created Oxlade-Chamberlain's early chance, while Lampard's accurate diagonal ball to Leighton Baines resulted in the opener. Baines's advanced positioning and crossing benefited England greatly – he was a constant outlet on the left, stretching the play and swinging crosses into the box.
Kyle Walker, on the opposite flank, remained deeper and narrower, and could have taken advantage of his lack of defensive responsibility to launch a more serious challenge to Glen Johnson as England's first-choice right-back. By necessity, England appeared a modern, progressive football side, boasting a fluid midfield, advanced full-backs, and every outfielder playing in the opposition half. Of course they did – they were playing the joint-worst team in the world.
The hope is that England continue in this manner against Montenegro on Tuesday, rather than retreating into the negative system that produced underwhelming 1-1 draws against Ukraine and Poland earlier in the qualification process.