Euro 2016: Hodgson's England improving but flaws remain
England are one year on from the debacle of their World Cup campaign in Brazil and one year out from Euro 2016 in France - the midpoint in a crucial process of recovery.
Qualification for France looks little more than a formality from a favourable group that offered England and manager Roy Hodgson the perfect rehabilitation period after their embarrassing early retreat from South America at the group stage.
The thrilling victory against Slovenia in Ljubljana on Sunday made it six wins out of six in Group E and with a six-point lead and four games remaining, it gives Hodgson and England the chance to make amends for events in Brazil when they reach France, as they surely will, next summer.
It was also, however, a win that exposed cracks in England's make up as well as demonstrating some of the quality they can offer in attack.
England's chaotic win, which contained some excellent passages of play, was the perfect antidote to those who believe they are entirely functional under Hodgson - but much of it was the wrong sort of excitement, especially in defence.
So how far have England come since the World Cup and that defeat by Italy in Manaus a year ago? And can they make a serious impact in France?
England's perfect path to France
On results alone, England and Hodgson are above criticism - so it seems churlish to add any rider to a perfect qualifying campaign that is unblemished and a season that has seen them go unbeaten for the first time since 1990-91.
This has been, however, "The Group of Death" only when it comes to excitement. Once England skilfully negotiated what appeared to be the most hazardous fixture on their schedule, a 2-0 win in Switzerland in September courtesy of two goals from Danny Welbeck, the tone was set for routine qualification.
|The results so far|
|8 Sep 2014||Switzerland||Won||0-2 (Welbeck, 2)|
|9 Oct 2014||San Marino||Won||5-0 (Jagielka, Rooney, Welbeck, Townsend, Della Valle OG)|
|12 Oct 2014||Estonia||Won||0-1 (Rooney)|
|15 Nov 2014||Slovenia||Won||3-1 (Rooney, Welbeck, 2)|
|27 Mar 2015||Lithuania||Won||4-0 (Rooney, Welbeck, Sterling, Kane)|
|14 June 2015||Slovenia||Won||2-3 (Wilshere 2, Rooney)|
Hodgson will rightly argue England can only beat what has been put in front of them, which they have, but none of the qualifying games will provide any sort of accurate measure to how they would cope when confronted with an elite power in a competitive environment.
And of course comfortable qualification for last summer's World Cup counted for little when England were effectively out after two games.
The bottom line is that heads would have rolled had England failed to qualify from this Euro 2016 group, with an inquiry to follow presumably, but it has been negotiated efficiently if not spectacularly.
Hodgson is entitled to ask what more England could have done - but it may be that friendlies arranged between now and the Euros will actually tell us more than the qualifying campaign.
England's plus points
There is no better plus point than an unblemished record of six from six - and there are other factors Hodgson can point to as he engenders hope and optimism ahead of Euro 2016.
Hodgson often talks of his squad being young and this is true. There is a younger, fresher look to England's squad, in part because of the retirement of the likes of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard and the decision to move away from experienced players such as Glen Johnson. This feels like a new generation.
Joe Hart remains one of the best goalkeepers in the world and Hodgson will look to develop young players in and around the team in the next 12 months - with an eye on talent emerging during the under-21 Euros later this month.
Despite his contract impasse at Liverpool, 20-year-old Raheem Sterling will surely be a star of England's future and huge hopes remain for Everton's Ross Barkley, a wonderful talent who must rebuild after a disappointing 12 months.
Jack Wilshere has been a great hope for England over the last couple of seasons. He has seen his career curtailed by injuries but he rose to the occasion in Slovenia.
He was not simply the strong-running, creative Wilshere loved by Arsenal's supporters, he was a controlling influence in times of trouble and produced two spectacular strikes, his first for England on his 28th appearance.
If he can stay fit and build on that next season, Hodgson will finally have the midfield gem he has been waiting to polish.
And in Gareth Southgate's Under-21 squad, there are players who will be earmarked to progress at such a rate to possibly make their mark in France, particularly Tottenham striker Harry Kane, Everton's elegant defender John Stones and West Brom forward Saido Berahino.
Hodgson will also hope striker Danny Ings's move to Liverpool will speed his development.
Add this to the quality and experience already provided by the likes of captain Wayne Rooney and with hopes Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge may actually stay fit (a long shot admittedly) and Hodgson will feel he can head into the Euros in good heart.
Watch a video of England's defensive performance here in Ljubljana. They are easy to spot.
England lacked defensive leadership, organisation, lacked a leader who, according to BBC Radio 5 live pundit Martin Keown, is in the mould of his former Arsenal captain Tony Adams, a defender who takes concession of a goal personally.
A crass error from Phil Jones, a foul throw-in that went unpunished but straight to a Slovenia player, led to the first goal and weakness in the air brought the second.
Defence is England's soft underbelly and better teams than Slovenia will have noticed its failings here.
The worry for Hodgson is that this is an old problem that remains uncured.
Before leaving for the World Cup, England's defence was pinpointed as an area of potential trouble, a flaw that could be unpicked by players of the highest class.
And so it proved - not so much in defeat by Italy but in the decisive loss to Uruguay, where Luis Suarez, despite not being fully fit, tormented the central defensive duo of Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka to score twice.
Those questions remain about England's defensive quality, where Manchester United pairing Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have failed to convince and Jagielka, despite a superb personal season at Everton, is unlikely to be the answer in France.
Neither convinced in Slovenia and Jones, in particular, looks all at sea at international level. Hodgson seems obsessed with finding him a place in the team - remember the failed holding midfield experiment against Italy in Turin? - but he has rarely looked accomplished for England.
This is where Stones may come in and partner Cahill, who is nowhere near as assured for England as he is at club level for Chelsea when he has John Terry alongside him for support.
Stones is untested at the highest level for all of his talent while the full-back spots are up for grabs, with Southampton's Nathaniel Clyne and Everton's Leighton Baines (who suffered badly at the World Cup) likely to emerge in pole position.
England's midfield may see off the lower orders in the international pecking order but is its ball retention good enough against the best? It certainly was not at the World Cup and again this qualifying campaign has not offered a firm solution.
And for all those who snipe, England are still heavily reliant on the goals, inspiration and leadership of captain Rooney - too reliant given the retirement of Gerrard and Lampard.
Rooney will be 30, and surely England's record goalscorer, by the time Euro 2016 starts. He has not had any significant impact on a major tournament since he burst on the scene as an Everton 18-year-old at Euro 2004 and yet it looks certain he will still be shouldering the heaviest burden of responsibility.
For all those who have questioned his place in the past, England have never, ever looked better without him.
It is perhaps a sign of England's lack of development that no-one has yet come forward to ease that strain on a player and personality so desperate to do well for England.
Can England win Euro 2016?
No - try asking a different question.
Can England make an impact at Euro 2016? Yes… if all their best players fire.
It takes too much of a leap of the imagination to see England troubling the likes of Germany and Spain but they will give plenty of others a run for their money if Hodgson can somehow make all the pieces fit and prove he can inspire, and relate to, this younger group of players.
In flashes, admittedly against a Slovenia side ranked 48th in the world, they showed they have quality in attack. It is elsewhere that the failings are found.
There is talent within the squad that can get a result on a given day but when it comes to major tournaments England do not have enough given days.
It is not as big a task as the World Cup but surely England will survive the group but questions remain about how much further they would drive into the tournament.
So how far have England come in 12 months?
Hard to assess. Results have been excellent but little excitement surrounds this England team under Hodgson, not helped by the standard of opposition in their Euro qualifying group and performances like the dross served up against the Republic of Ireland.
There has been that move towards the next era of younger players led by the likes of Wilshere, Sterling, Barkley but they still have so far to go.
Hodgson is satisfied with England's progress, saying: "We started with a new group and we didn't know where that would lead but I've been quite pleased with what they've done so far."
He added: "Grieving is too strong a word but there's a process. You have to give yourself time to get back in some sort of balance, But I'm satisfied we were able to get over it and to get off to a good start in the group in September and we've kept that going.
"It won't be forgotten. You don't forget bad moments in your life, no more than you do the good moments. It's part of your life and part of your football life. Everyone in football has to develop the mental strength to deal with that and we've dealt with it."
Measured by results - the most important gauge of any team - England have progressed but the reality states that no-one will work out exactly how far, if at all, they have really come forward until they meet that first serious opposition at the Euros.