What Gareth Southgate will have hoped for is two routine victories. What his side showed instead were two very different sides. England in September showed that they can be scintillating. But they also showed that they can be stupid.
It started on Saturday 7th, with a comfortable 4-0 victory over Bulgaria. The Eastern European nation finished fourth at USA ’94, helped by a golden generation featuring Hristo Stoichkov, Krasimir Balakov and Yordan Letchkov. However, they’ve fallen on hard times in terms of talent, no longer able to rely on more recent stars like Dimitar Berbatov or Stiliyan Petrov.
Their team to face England included two naturalised-Brazilians, but they were to show no signs of samba football. Harry Kane scored a second England hat-trick, albeit two were penalties, adding an assist for the electric Raheem Sterling as England made easy work of a well-drilled but ultimately well beaten side. It’s hard to win any game if you’re going to concede two spot-kicks.
For England, the first half of the international break had gone extremely well. Another clean-sheet and four-goal haul was a fine result, even if the atmosphere on a sun-dozed Wembley afternoon was one of family-day-out and of general distraction. Watford sacked their manager halfway through the game.
Tougher tasks lay ahead; Southgate certainly thought so. Kosovo had been stirring up England’s qualification group, just like any proud new nation would want to. The two group leaders met at Southampton. England had been flawless in their first three games, but it was Kosovo that held Europe’s longest unbeaten record going into the game.
England escaped with a hard-fought victory, winning an un-English game by the very un-English scoreline of 5-3. It actually made for quite refreshing viewing, for the neutral anyway. It wasn’t Portugal or France or Brazil. This was England, conceding three but scoring more. It was 1950s stuff.
Raheem Sterling was even more blistering than he had been against Bulgaria, outfoxing his marker every time he had one, turning every time he could. He assisted the exuberant Jadon Sancho for his first two England goals – one a smart counter and the other a tap in, all Sterling’s hard work.
The turn in midfield that set him on his way to assisting Harry Kane had a touch of Maradona about it – an act that appeared so simple it begs the question “Why doesn’t every player do this?”.
And all of those were happy moments for England. But they were only happy moments because Sterling himself had risen highest from a corner to equalise for England when St Mary’s most needed something to cheer.
England led 5-1 at the break – a world-class turnaround from a side so embarrassingly behind in the game after just 34 seconds of play.
Marcus Rashford had played against Bulgaria, but it was Sancho who stepped up against Kosovo. Both played well, but Rashford may well have returned to Manchester United a frustrated figure. Kane and Sterling scored in both games. Sancho scored against Kosovo. But Rashford was unable to find the back of the net, despite playing nearly 100 minutes over the two games.
With Callum Hudson-Odoi to come in still, it remains unclear which individual will join Sterling and Kane to complete that key front-three for England. Rashford has had the more illustrious career but it may well end up being young Jadon Sancho that comes to the fore next summer.
Ross Barkley and Declan Rice were impressive performers in both fixtures, the former leading forays forward, whilst the latter intercepted robustly and fed the wings when the ball was won.
But those two were rare shining lights in an England team that has seemed top-heavy in recent games. The attack is more-than pulling its weight. The defence however appears all too reliant on England scoring four or five goals every game – something simply unfeasible come the European Championships.
Kosovo’s first two of three goals, or their only goals other than a penalty, were totally gifted to them by dreadful misplaced passes. First Michael Keane was caught out with a no-look pass to Harry Maguire less than a minute in, and then Rice’s underhit pass helped Valon Berisha score his and Kosovo’s second.
Maguire’s ridiculous challenge in the box gave Kosovo another chance, a penalty, which they converted to make it three.
Kosovo’s manager Bernard Challandes really is a character. His press conferences are unorthodox; he states things profoundly and passionately.
That does seem to rub off onto his players, because their performance was one of courage, attacking intent and often such a desire to score that England found it all too easy to counter. Hence Sterling’s sterling performance and Barkley’s driving runs forward in an overall more tense and testing second half.
England came up against an exciting side with a ballsy philosophy and enough raw talent to pull it off. However, conceding three goals in any international fixture almost always spells bad trouble. Southgate’s side and in particular the England defence got away with a number of amateur mistakes – able to thank that potent front-three for a flurry of five first-half goals.
Harry Kane did the unthinkable in the second half, missing a penalty. However, this has been taken rather out of context in the days since. There were three minutes between the awarding and the striking of the spot-kick, he was up against a classic penalty-saving goalkeeper in Manchester City’s Ari Muric and he didn’t miss but was rather denied by a top save.
Kane has since scored from the spot in the Champions League, but he will want to hit the back of the net for England again all the sooner now.
England never scored in the second half against Kosovo, conceding twice and winning 5-3 from a 5-1 half-time lead. This draws similarities to their win over Panama in the 2018 World Cup group-stage. They went into the break 5-0 up that day, eventually winning 6-1.
The intensity of the second-half is still important in a game like that, but it’s already a won contest. Players will naturally be more revved up in the tunnel during the break if they’re 1-0 up than if they lead 5-0 in what is a forgone conclusion.
But that offers England an excuse that they shouldn’t be allowed to issue. They’re an elite sports team, dreaming of and capable of winning Euro 2020.
There was plenty of brilliance about the football they played in September. However, questions still need answering as to who best suits the midfield and defence. Inevitably, the two more settled positions – goalkeeper and attack – is where England have been performing most impressively.
Gareth Southgate seems to have limitless options in defence and in midfield. The time left to test and refine his shortlist though is rather more limited.