England completed the formalities of their successful Euro 2020 qualifying campaign with a victory in Kosovo that was not as comfortable as the scoreline suggests – and which confirmed Gareth Southgate’s side remain a mixed bag.
As Thursday’s 7-0 win over Montenegro secured their place in next summer’s tournament, this victory achieved the next objective, to ensure England will be a top seed when the draw takes place.
It was a satisfactory conclusion and few can quibble about the comprehensive manner of England’s qualification – but what will Southgate take away from what was, in many ways even beyond the game itself, a celebratory occasion?
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Sterling always an influence
It has been a troubled week for Raheem Sterling, having been dropped for the victory against Montenegro as a disciplinary measure following the disturbance involving Joe Gomez when England’s players reported for duty at St George’s Park on Monday.
The Manchester City forward reiterated on social media that he was the guilty party after Liverpool defender Gomez was disgracefully jeered by some fans at Wembley.
Southgate had no hesitation in restoring him to the side once his punishment was served, and while this was never a night when Sterling was at his best, he demonstrated once again that he is at the fulcrum of all of England’s plans.
Sterling, like others, struggled with the surface initially and could not get going but he worked tirelessly throughout, performing his defensive duties as well as further forward, and as Kosovo tired he made his impact.
He had a snapshot saved by Kosovo keeper Arijanet Muric in the first half but was then the creator as Kane ended the contest with England’s second before playing in Marcus Rashford for a superb finish.
Even when he is not at peak form, Sterling is always a threat and irreplaceable in England’s blueprint for Euro 2020 success.
England’s defensive trouble still lingers
It is a recurring England theme – but it will remain so until Southgate can somehow remove the lingering suspicion that his side has a soft centre in defence and will fall prey to superior opposition.
We saw it against the Netherlands in the Nations League in June. We saw it in the defeat by the Czech Republic in Prague in October. We have now seen it twice against Kosovo.
The Kosovans seriously troubled England in the 5-3 win at Southampton in September and for a spell after the interval here England were rocked as the pressure was applied and the tempo was dictated to them.
Kosovo could have equalised when Valon Berisha was inches away and captain Amir Rrahmani gave England a real let-off when he headed a great chance wide.
It was symptomatic of how sloppy England had been up to that stage. Southgate had made five changes, and of course in certain respects this was a dead rubber, but there were moments of real concern.
Former England World Cup winger Chris Waddle, in Kosovo analysing on BBC Radio 5 Live, said during that rocky period in the second half before the comfortable conclusion: “When teams have a go at England, they really struggle and that is a concern. This is not Germany and France.”
It would take a brave man to guess Southgate’s central defensive partnership for their first Euro 2020 game, a serious worry in itself at the very heart of England’s team.
Manchester United’s Harry Maguire is a fixture but who plays alongside him? It was Tyrone Mings here with Fikayo Tomori getting a debut, while John Stones is still rebuilding form and confidence.
Southgate would love to be sure about that crucial combination – and of course he may yet revert to three at the back as he did when England reached the World Cup semi-final in 2018 – but at this stage real doubts remain about personnel and the fear that whoever gets the nod would crack under serious pressure.
The Winks-Rice experiment not a success
Southgate, robbed of Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson through illness, decided to utilise West Ham United’s Declan Rice and Tottenham’s Harry Winks in midfield but it did not look like a natural fit.
Rice was in the centre and Winks to the left but too often they were occupying the same spaces. If England do not play a conventional ‘number 10’, then it has to be one or the other – and currently that is Winks.
West Ham’s 20-year-old Rice is going through an understandable dip for one so young after setting sky-high standards early in his career and he made a crucial second-half block on Milot Rashica as he bore down on goal after keeper Nick Pope slipped on a treacherous surface.
Winks, however, is a growing force with England and he must now be a serious contender for Southgate as he weighs up those Euro 2020 options.
And England’s good news
For all the questions at the back, England are a magnificent attacking force. This 4-0 win made it 37 goals in eight qualifiers and it may yet come down to whether they can outscore high-quality opponents who look to take advantage of that suspect rearguard. They have that capability.
It will be a source of huge comfort to Southgate that he has this weaponry at this disposal, headed by world-class duo Kane and Sterling with able assistance from a revitalised Rashford and Borussia Dortmund 19-year-old Jadon Sancho.
Kane, in particular, is putting together remarkable figures. He is sixth in England’s all-time rankings after scoring his 32nd goal and no matter what the standard of opposition it is a magnificent feat to score in all eight qualifiers.
Kosovo coach Bernard Challandes, a great character not prone to understatement, was laying it on thick to describe England as “the best team in the world” but, make no mistake, they will be a serious threat to any opponents at Euro 2020.
Heart-warming Kosovo make it a night to remember
This was a historic occasion for Kosovo, the game everyone in this emerging country had ringed in their diary from the moment the Euro 2020 qualifying draw was made – and it lived up to its extraordinary billing.
England were welcomed as heroes, not simply because so many of their players are Premier League icons but because there remains great thanks and gratitude for the United Kingdom’s part in Kosovo’s liberation in 1999.
This has been a few days of genuine warmth and friendliness for everyone out here in Pristina – a refreshing experience.
The PA announcer made a passionate, emotional speech before kick-off, thousands of flag of St George cards were held up during England’s national anthem and the names of the players were cheered and chanted as they were read out.
It was a heart-warming occasion, the antidote to the sour taste Southgate and his players felt as they departed from Montenegro and Bulgaria after their players were racially abused.
Everyone in Kosovo, and of course more specifically Pristina, wanted to make this a special, memorable night. Even in defeat on the pitch, they succeeded.