A qualifying group in which England have been stretched only once during a mad five minutes in Scotland could be settled as early as Monday should the Group F leaders deal positively with Malta tonight and Slovakia fail to put Slovenia away in Bratislava.
Not that we should read a bean into that since qualifying has rarely been England’s problem. Nevertheless if Gareth Southgate’s team are to find a solution to repeated tournament failures then by definition they must get to Russia first.
With the emphasis on playing time in the Premier League a guiding principle of Southgate’s selection policy, then reconstituted of Manchester United, Phil Jones, comes steaming into the picture. Though only three games in, Jones has impressed at centre-back for United this season, not only helping to establish his club at the top of the Premier League but undoing the bad karma that clung to him last season when injury complicated his relations with Jose Mourinho and speculation had him heading out the door.
Jones has made only 21 appearances for England since his debut six years ago and only one since 2015, in the 3-2 defeat to France in June. That he did not disgrace himself in a back three that included John Stones and Gary Cahill suggests he will feature against Malta and Slovakia on Monday as the defensive anchor.
Notable in this period has been a new sense of calm about Jones, the reckless streak that saw him flying into tackles hither and thither earlier in his career as he tried too hard to establish himself appears tempered on the altar of experience.
“I’ve just become more experienced as a player as I’ve got older. You need to be sensible on the pitch and sometimes I don’t need to go for balls I would have done five or six years ago. It’s just experience and having a better understanding of the game and who is around you,” he said.
He is helped no end by the consistency of selection at United, where Mourinho has made him his first choice centre-back alongside Eric Bailly and ahead of Chris Smalling and new signing Victor Lindelof. Jones is a gifted athlete and an intelligent lad, but in a high-stakes environment like the Premier League, versatility can sometimes be your enemy.
“Playing in midfield is a different ball game. You have to be on the half turn all the time, have a different picture in your head of what is behind and in front of you. Playing at right-back is different again,” he said.
“When I was switching around in my early stages people underestimated how difficult it was just to go from playing centre midfield to right-back to centre-back to right-back to centre midfield. It’s not easy, especially at a big club, but I did it and think I’m seeing the benefits now.”
The debacle of Nice 15 months ago when England lost to Iceland in the last 16 of the European Championships should warn against hauteur in Malta tonight. That said, the game really will be up should England not make pedigree tell.
Understandably Jones is keen to press on and make the most of his good health and good start to the season. “Hopefully now I can make more appearances and win more caps for my country. Everyone says it’s an honour and it really is. We all look forward to international games.
“I need to keep playing well for United first, stay strong and then hopefully who knows? It’s down to the manager, but hopefully I can give him that thought that maybe I can [be first choice].”