A 5-0 win against the lowest-ranked team in international football was the very least Gareth Southgate could have expected.
The England manager spoke beforehand of putting smiles on faces. Yet, so many of the expressions of those wearing blue were of anguish and frustration that victory was not more emphatic.
That, aside from a winning start on the road to Qatar, should be most encouraging to Southgate. Even if England were guilty of not making their superiority truly count, it was not for the want of trying.
Jesse Lingard alone had 10 efforts on goal. Raheem Sterling was so desperate to score that he made up six inches in height to beat Dominic Calvert-Lewin when trying to convert a first-half header.
It is an attitude instilled in this generation of England players by their manager. The return of John Stones and Lingard serve as a warning of the consequences of allowing standards to dip.
The absence of Trent Alexander-Arnold is an even more compelling example of Southgate’s ruthlessness.
England under his 50-game stewardship is a genuine meritocracy. It is why a former Weston-super-Mare striker in Ollie Watkins could make his scoring debut last night, while a Champions League winner in Liverpool’s Alexander-Arnold was left sitting at home.
It remains to be seen if that will be the case when Southgate names his squad for this summer’s Euros, but either way, his point has been made.
Southgate wants to keep his players on the edge in a manner that opponents like San Marino never could. So, he has to use what tools he has at his disposal.
That is not to say the axing of Alexander-Arnold was a stunt; rather, it was in keeping with the culture Southgate has created within the national team.
That was evident in a game that captain Harry Kane was desperate to play in as he closes in on Wayne Rooney’s all-time scoring record, while those who were on the pitch eagerly tried to make an impression.
Gareth Southgate impressed by England’s hunger and desire against San Marino
Calvert-Lewin will feel a sense of disappointment that he did not walk away with more than just two goals. Watkins’ fine finish ensures he is breathing down the neck of the Everton striker.
The outstanding James Ward-Prowse opened the scoring and hit the post with a wonderful free-kick to remind all that he is very much in the mix for a midfield berth along with the more celebrated Mason Mount, Declan Rice and Phil Foden.
And full-backs Ben Chilwell and Reece James staked their own claims in positions where competition is intense.
San Marino is the ultimate “gimme”, yet there was a sense of jeopardy for the players on a personal level. That was no better epitomised than by Lingard, who has thrust himself back onto the scene after swapping the wilderness at Manchester United for a starring role on loan at West Ham. He hurt San Marino right across the front with his runs into the box, crossing and shots on goal.
It was what you would expect of an elite Premier League player against such meagre opposition. But for Lingard, you felt this was a desperate attempt to make up for lost time, having gone from starting a World Cup semi-final to being frozen out of the England picture as a host young rivals emerged.
Even after his recall, Southgate tempered his celebrations by revealing he was lucky so many alternative options, like Jack Grealish, James Maddison and Harvey Barnes, were unavailable. Those words may have been ringing in Lingard’s ears as he became embroiled in what felt like a personal duel with San Marino goalkeeper Ella Benedettini and ultimately failed to find a way through.
Did he do enough to force his way into Southgate’s plans for the Euros? It is not clear. But if he feels uncertain about his international future, he is not alone in an England set-up Southgate has designed to keep everyone on their toes.