LONDON • Gareth Southgate pleaded for patience after admitting that his young England side had served up another "flat" World Cup performance in their 1-0 win away to Lithuania on Sunday.
Despite being taunted with an ironic chant of "it's just like watching Brazil" from travelling fans, the England manager attempted to sound upbeat and said that the team had bonded with supporters at the end.
"We made a point of going over to fans at the end of games," he said. "The players have given everything they have got. You can't fault their application and they have qualified for the World Cup. There was a bit of bonding at the end as appreciation for that."
It was the youngest England side for 15 years, with an average age of 24 years and 91 days, but Southgate conceded that two wins in four days had been earned in dull fashion. Harry Kane's penalty brought a successful end to a campaign in which there had been a clear disconnect with the supporters.
"We have won two matches and we have come away from both of them a bit flat," he said.
"On the back of the other night, we wanted to score a load of goals and when we don't, you understand the reaction."
The tempo of England's football has rarely set pulses racing and the wins have been rather laboured in a group where they have found themselves confronted by massed defences at almost every turn. There has been no room to breathe, let alone shine.
But, even taking into account the particular quirks of this group, something has been lacking up to now. The worry is that it might be quality.
"Gareth Southgate has to inject his England players with a level of confidence and direction. He needs to energise this team," former England defender Martin Keown told The Daily Mail.
"By playing in straight lines against Slovenia, England were far too predictable.
"If England are going to continue playing through the compartments, then the midfielders have to learn to recycle the ball more quickly."
Former national striker Chris Sutton added: "England may have qualified but there is nothing to celebrate."
"It is the first time I can ever remember them heading into a World Cup with such an absence of belief," he told The Daily Mail.
"England are ponderous and predictable. They cannot seem to open teams up in attack, look vulnerable at the back and everything is done at a snail's pace. As things stand, England have no chance in Russia."
Southgate said that England needed tougher challenges. Looking ahead to next month's friendlies against Brazil and Germany, he said: "We have to test ourselves against the best. Our defenders need a different sort of challenge.
"They have to be able to play out under pressure and defend against top strikers."
He added that he would persist with the 3-4-3 formation tested out in Vilnius. "I wanted to implement it now so we will be ahead of the game in November. They are things we have to look at."
Harry Winks, the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder, was one plus point on Sunday after making his debut. Southgate said: "One of the big things when playing for England is not necessarily the opposition, it's whether you can handle wearing an England shirt. He did that."
THE TIMES, LONDON, THE GUARDIAN