After a game that many felt shouldn’t have even taken place, at the end of a year that has been so disorientating, there is one major question around England: have Gareth Southgate’s side gone forwards or backwards?
Have they lost the perfect opportunity to win Euro 2020, due to its postponement, or might the tournament fall at just the right time?
This routine 4-0 win over a poor Iceland didn't tell us much, mostly for the fact so little of genuine significance happened. Declan Rice and Phil Foden won’t see it that way, for their part, having both scored their first goals for England. The Manchester City attacker’s second also brought a century of goals under Southgate, Mason Mount claimed the game's other goal.
If the match didn’t mean much beyond that, it did at least reflect some of the year’s wider themes – not least how odd it was. Harry Maguire spent much of the game so advanced he was playing in midfield.
The abnormal circumstances of the year do make it difficult to really judge whether England have gone backwards, forwards or just stayed still. There hasn’t really been a “normal” fixture, for one.
Even allowing for the general oddity of 2020, every international game has come at a strange time. The September break was in the middle of a curtailed pre-season, the October one way too early into the actual season, and this one too soon after the players started to feel the load of the crunched schedule.
• Read more: Five things we learned from England’s win
• Read more: Player ratings from England vs Iceland
Southgate has also had to contend with a number of other issues – some a consequence of the situation, others purely of their own making. There was Maguire’s arrest in Greece, then Foden and Mason Greenwood’s troubles in Reykjavik.
Foden’s goal and assist were pointers to his international rehabilitation.
Greenwood’s absence was an indication of how his international career has stalled. There is a long way to go between now and Euro 2020, but it really would feel wrong if a striker commonly called “a generational talent” is not in the squad and in the mood.
The hope was that he would enliven these international matches. As it is, someone else has done that.
Jack Grealish has been by far the greatest positive about England’s year, and often their play. He just illuminates every match, and every attack. It took mere minutes for Grealish to show his magnificent footwork here.
There is a wider significance to his impact, that reflects one of the main challenges from the year for Southgate.
That is how England have gone from being the most dangerous attack in international football in 2019 to one where the goals had suddenly dried up in open play. This match saw England almost double their total for the year, from four to seven, although the second of those – by Mount – was more from a hapless Icelandic error rather than any kind of constructed play and the second just a Foden thunderbolt. Foden’s first was admittedly from some smart interchanges, and a fine finish.
England need more of that.
It points to a deeper question connected to all that, which is how Southgate decides to set up the team. Just as England waver between solidity and free-flowing attacking, the manager wavers between 3-4-3 and 4-3-3, with the two issues inherently connected.
Three at the back makes England more secure but less creative. A 4-3-3 makes more opportunities but also makes England more open.
Grealish is one of the few that looks a constant in both, appearing so imaginative regardless of the formation. He would appear especially important to 3-4-3. Southgate just has to figure out his best configuration for individual situations.
One of the great advantages for the manager is that he has so much attacking talent to choose from.
One of the great challenges is making good on that, and not “wasting” them.
There are some in football expressing concern that Southgate doesn’t yet know his best team. He also seems to hand out caps very readily, having given 12 players their international debuts this year.
The counterpoint to that is that this abnormal situation is precisely the time to experiment, and there might actually be a danger in fixing on a team so early, with so long to go until Euro 2020.
Too much can change, especially in a season like this. The brutal reality is it would be a miracle if all of England’s best players are fit for the summer. That’s how taxing the season will be.
That is not the only factor that favours a certain adaptability to Southgate’s approach. There’s also the two distinctive types of challenges they’ll have next summer.
While England will dominate the ball in the majority of matches, they are alone among that top tier of nations in not really having a midfield controller – a Thiago Alcantara, a Toni Kroos or Marco Verratti. It remains a problem.
It also means Southgate should set up his team differently depending on the games. There would be little point trying to assert control against a side just better at doing it.
There was little enough point to this game, beyond completing the Nations League, and a few benefits.
It also means England close the year with a win, and a positive. That isn’t to be overlooked given how much of it has gone, and what is to come. As regards the overall answer, England have probably stood still a bit, but Southgate will hope that it merely sets up a leap forward for Euro 2020, in 2021.