Play faster, think positive: Five things England need to do for the World Cup
England have qualified for the World Cup finals in Russia. And in no style whatsoever. Thursday's drab, last-gasp 1-0 victory over Slovenia confirmed their place at the top of the group but they'll have to improve if they're to have a chance of any success next summer. Iain Macintosh offers five areas of improvement.
Even the best teams can be frustrated by a well-drilled, deeply deployed defence. Creative players can't create without space, but there are ways through the crowds.
Manchester City are the current market leaders in this department. Pep Guardiola insists on swift passing and intelligent movement from his players, while England have a tendency to slowly pass the ball among themselves while they consider their options -- sometimes for the entire game, and sometimes even when the crowd are so bored that they'd rather throw paper airplanes around the stadium.
Guardiola also employs unorthodox tactics, using Fabian Delph as an inverted left-back, for example, to add unexpected numbers to the midfield. England can be too cautious, probably because they know the Wembley crowd will turn on them quickly if they try something ambitious and it doesn't work. But they need to rise above that. They need to be braver. They're good players; they need to believe in themselves.
Try a new goalkeeper ... just in case
The much-maligned Joe Hart picked up the man-of-the-match award at Wembley, though there was not exactly a crowded field of contenders. Nevertheless, he made some smart saves and he remains an effervescent character in spite of his patchy form. It is to be hoped, particularly by West Ham fans, that this performance proves a turning point. However, it would be prudent to test out other options.
Fraser Forster and Jack Butland are generally considered to be the next in line, with six and five caps accrued, respectively. But Jordan Pickford, yet to make his debut, is the most promising talent and his superior distribution would certainly help. He should be given a game or two to settle him in at this level. Just in case.
Ignore the negativity
When questioned after the game about the notion of sending a message to his critics, Hart burst out laughing. This was exactly the right response. Top-level players should not concern themselves with the opinions of outside observers, especially this one.
Now that qualification has been secured, the British press will gather its strength for the coming summer. Generally, the sports reporters aren't the problem. There will be criticism, but the pluralisation of the media has lessened its influence. The nasty stuff will come from the front of the papers. Time-honoured storylines will reappear: Someone will be photographed drinking, someone's affair will come to light, unflattering comparisons will be made with previous generations. There may even be a call for England to pull out of the tournament to avoid shaming the nation.
Don't laugh: It has happened before. The players should ignore it all. The press will be quick enough to bask in reflected glory, should any emerge.
Take the positives
England qualified! With a game to spare! Argentina would love to be in that position right now. No-one could pretend that this has been pretty, but that won't matter when it all kicks off in Russia next summer.
No-one ever remembers qualifying games. And yet, there have been moments that England should remember. The late goals, for example. The campaign opened with a last-minute Adam Lallana winner in Slovenia, a late, late Harry Kane equaliser spared England's blushes in Scotland and it was Kane again who popped up in the 93rd minute to seal the deal on Thursday.
England's players are frequently and justifiably attacked for their lack of mental strength, but they have demonstrated a resolve in this campaign that should fill them with confidence. If they find themselves chasing a game in Russia, they know what to do.
Tottenham Hotspur, as a club from the boardroom to the stands, need to ask themselves an important question: Are we patriots? Do we care about our country? Do we want what is best for England? If the answer is yes, then there is only one course of action: Harry Kane must be placed in an experimental stasis chamber until June. Held in a vacuum that is sealed so tight it locks out the very passage of time, he will be protected from injury and preserved for his nation.
The rest of the season will continue as normal for us, but it will last only the faintest flicker of a second for him. He won't even need to regain his fitness or sharpness. That's the beauty of stasis. The only question now is whether Spurs want to play ball. They should think carefully. This country was quick enough to sever ties with Europe; it would do the same to Tottenham given half a chance.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.