Russia World Cup 2018: What shape are England in with one year to go?
Manager Gareth Southgate, appointed following the abrupt end to Sam Allardyce's 67-day reign, insists the job is exactly as he thought it would be.
And the scale of Southgate's task was brutally outlined as England were outpaced, out-thought and outclassed by a France team who spent virtually the entire second half with 10 men after Raphael Varane's video-assisted red card but still deservedly won 3-2.
So where do England stand at the midpoint between the humiliation against Iceland in the last 16 at Euro 2016 and an expected campaign at next summer's World Cup in Russia?
French lesson posts ominous signals
England's players were at the end of a long season, were using an experimental three-man defensive system and featured a side bearing an unfamiliar look - but there was no escaping the painful reality of how much better France were.
Paul Pogba was imperious in midfield but the real pain was inflicted by the brilliance of Monaco's teenage prodigy Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele, who simply carried too much pace, movement and imagination for England.
The idea of England competing with sides such as France at the World Cup seems fanciful even with a year still to go, and Southgate accepted his players found their pace and physicality too much in the key phases of the game.
Just to make England feel worse, France coach Didier Deschamps - heavily criticised after a World Cup qualifying defeat in Sweden - was without Atletico Madrid's brilliant Antoine Griezmann and Lyon's in-demand Alexandre Lacazette in his attacking line-up.
Marseille's Dimitri Payet started on the bench, as did Arsenal's Laurent Koscielny.
It was a stark message. And that message was France have a depth and quality England simply cannot get near.
Are England heading into familiar territory?
England's story has followed a familiar narrative in recent years. Qualification is completed with ease before embarrassment at the first sight of serious opposition at a major tournament.
Roy Hodgson's side did not lose a qualifier before the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but were effectively eliminated by losses to Italy and Uruguay. They had a perfect 10 in qualifying for Euro 2016 before one of the country's most humiliating losses to the minnows of Iceland.
In other words, England's true measure has never been revealed in qualifying but is always exposed when the competitive action starts.
In the context of Southgate's friendlies at home to Spain and away to Germany and France, it is not unreasonable to fear something similar might happen again following the relative comfort of a World Cup qualifying group containing Slovakia, Slovenia, Scotland, Lithuania and Malta.
England failed to win in Slovenia and were heading for a shock defeat against a limited Scotland side on Saturday until Harry Kane's 93rd-minute equaliser at Hampden Park.
But Spain came from two goals down to draw at Wembley, Germany won what was effectively a Lukas Podolski testimonial in Dortmund in March, and France's dismantling of Southgate's men was perhaps the most informative of all.
France, even without their full armoury, were technically better, physically stronger and the more menacing side.
It is to the manager's credit that he is not attempting to raise his win ratio by picking soft friendly opponents, but there is still no doubt this has been a chastening few days for England after two matches hardly designed to ramp up national footballing fervour.
Southgate, once again with admirable realism, insists moving into the comfort zone in friendlies can mask the true status of your team. The other side of that coin is the tougher games can reveal the warts-and-all truth.
And there has been no evidence as yet that England can alter the pattern - boom of qualification, bust of a major tournament - that has become their hallmark. A familiar narrative unfolded in the glorious warmth of Paris.
This was the conclusion of England's international season. A rather dispiriting one.
What are Southgate's problems?
Southgate has issues to resolve if, as expected, his side complete the formalities of qualification to reach Russia next summer.
The England boss appears to have an increasing dilemma in goal, given long-standing first-choice Joe Hart's increasing vulnerability, not to mention his uncertain immediate future as he tries to find a club after returning to Manchester City following a mixed loan spell with Torino.
The good news is competition is at hand, and behind the experience of Burnley's Tom Heaton and Southampton keeper Fraser Forster come two outstanding young contenders to put pressure on Hart.
Stoke City's Jack Butland, 24, made a highly distinguished return to the England scene in the second half against France, making crucial saves and looking confident.
While Butland was staking his claim, 23-year-old Sunderland keeper Jordan Pickford was taking the headlines as he prepares to move to Everton for £30m, with formalities expected to be completed when he returns from the Under-21 European Championship.
From that group, Southgate must decide who his number one at the World Cup must be.
England have experience in central defence but as yet no pairing that breeds confidence against opposition of the highest calibre.
Southgate experimented with a three-man central-defensive system here in France, using John Stones between Phil Jones and Gary Cahill.
Stones had a poor night, although he was desperately short of game time, while neither Jones nor the experienced Cahill were convincing.
Chris Smalling has never produced hard evidence that he is true international class, so Southgate may need to find a testing ground for the younger breed such as Ben Gibson and Michael Keane, both of whom are 24.
Southgate also clearly feels he has a dearth of holding midfield players as he talked about the prospect of Stones being used in this role. The Manchester City player struggled doing his day job in France, so this may be a step too far.
Eric Dier looks jaded and Jake Livermore, while willing, would surely struggle against the highest class. Southgate may be awaiting the return of Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson with relish.
There is a place for experimentation but time is starting to fly now and Southgate must decide on his best team and that team's shape. Will it be a conventional back four? Will Kane be a lone striker with Dele Alli just behind?
Southgate will have much to consider on his summer break before the next qualifiers - in Malta, then at home to Slovenia.
|England's remaining World Cup qualifiers|
|Malta (A)||Friday, 1 September|
|Slovakia (H)||Monday, 4 September|
|Slovenia (H)||Thursday, 5 October|
|Lithuania (A)||Sunday, 8 October|
It's not all bad - the plus points for Southgate
England are still in a commanding position in their World Cup qualifying group - two points ahead of Slovakia - and the Football Association can rightly bask in the afterglow of victory at the Under-20 World Cup in South Korea.
It would take a sporting catastrophe for England not to reach Russia. It is changing a recent history of failure that is at the heart of Southgate's deliberations.
There are quality players in England's squad, exciting young talent, and in Kane they have a natural goalscorer at this level who is developing into a leader and is surely Southgate's long-term captain.
In Alli he has one of the best young talents in the game, while Manchester United teenager Marcus Rashford, who admittedly looked jaded and off the pace in Scotland, has proved he is player with an X-factor.
Liverpool's Adam Lallana continues his late blooming as an England player at 29, and there is a genuine unity and purpose within the squad.
Southgate is only in the relatively early stages of a job he would never have expected to have this time last year, and he will learn from every day as England manager.
And there is still 12 months before the World Cup starts. Southgate, a mature and thoughtful individual, will use that precious time wisely.
After England's status on international football's 'B list' was underlined again in France, he will have to.
|England's record under Southgate - P8 W3 D3 L2|
|8 Oct, 2016: England 2-0 Malta|
|11 Oct, 2016: Slovenia 0-0 England|
|11 Nov, 2016: England 3-0 Scotland|
|15 Nov, 2016: England 2-2 Spain (friendly)|
|22 March, 2017: Germany 1-0 England (friendly)|
|26 March, 2017: England 2-0 Lithuania|
|10 June, 2017: Scotland 2-2 England|
|13 June, 2017: France 3-2 England (friendly)|
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