Richard Buxton: England need to fix chink in armour
Southgate's Three Lions could be undone by defensive frailties
England are not quite as "further ahead" as Gareth Southgate would like to believe.
Last year's World Cup semi-finalists have made tangible overall progress in the run-up to Euro 2020 than they did en route to Russia, but are still guilty of falling behind in key areas.
Attack remains the Three Lions' best form of defence after taking their tally to 37 goals with a comprehensive 4-0 win over Kosovo in yesterday morning's (Singapore time) final qualifier.
Their backline, however, still poses more questions than solutions heading into the Finals, with Southgate yet to decide on his strongest line-up for next summer's tournament.
One thing is for certain, though, whoever starts alongside Harry Maguire will automatically be on a hiding to nothing.
In the last six competitive fixtures where England have conceded goals, Manchester United's record signing formed one half of their centre-back pairing on all bar one occasion.
"Lightning rod" currently appears to be a more accurate nickname for the defender than "Slab-head".
The former Leicester City centre-back appeared uneasy when attempting to play the ball out from the back.
Equally, his prospective partners hardly inspire a great deal of confidence either.
Tyrone Mings notably struggled in Pristina on a first start for his country, while substitute Fikayo Tomori has yet to validate his own international credentials despite earning Frank Lampard's trust as part of a resurgent Chelsea side.
John Stones' inability to acquit himself amid Manchester City's current malaise does not inspire much confidence.
Neither does Joe Gomez despite his mature response to the fallout with Raheem Sterling, following Liverpool's win over the English Premier League champions.
Taking a punt on Michael Keane risks being the biggest gamble of all, given how his England form wildly contrasts with often solid displays at the heart of Everton's defence this season.
Southgate's refusal to deviate from his time-honoured 4-3-3 system means England will be heavily exposed by anyone wiling to take them on next summer, especially with Trent Alexander-Arnold's penchant for driving forward, leaving a gaping hole in the right-back slot.
Even in a game which was effectively ceremonial, with their place at Euro 2020 clinched one match ahead of schedule, Southgate's side still found themselves needlessly under siege.
Kosovo failed to emulate their antics in September's eight-goal encounter between the sides, yet history could have easily repeated itself as Maguire and his defensive cohorts were caught napping from set-pieces as much as open play at the Fadil Vokrri Stadium.
If a team ranked 110 places beneath the fourth-best in the world can induce panic stations in defence, teams will relish the prospect of being in England's group when the draw is made on Nov 30.
With England, Ukraine, Italy and Belgium being confirmed as four of the six top seeds, either Germany, France or Spain will be pushed to the second seeds' pot, which means they could end up in the same group as the Three Lions.
With only seven months to go before the main event, time is not on Southgate's side.
He will have only four warm-up games to determine which players represent the best fit.
Compromise is likely to be a factor in his decision-making.
The option to switch to the three-man defence which served England well during the latter stages of the World Cup is looking increasingly appealing, given the soft-centred nature of the flat-back four approach.
As one of the host nations - several games, including the semi-finals and final will be played in London - the favourites' tag sits more uneasily on them than it did at Euro 1996.
Unless they can quickly strike a balance, the latest mission to bring football "home" will fall at its first hurdle.