England continued their winning start to Euro 2020 qualifying with a 5-3 victory over Kosovo at St Mary’s Stadium. Gareth Southgate still has questions to answer in defence and midfield, but his all-star attack is providing cause for optimism ahead of next summer’s tournament.
Sterling on song
It is now eight goals in eight international appearances for the irrepressible Raheem Sterling, whose recent performances must surely place him among the most in-form players on the planet. Against Kosovo, he picked up where left off against Bulgaria, scoring one goal and creating three more.
It is remarkable to think that this is the same player who, until his double against Spain last October, went 27 games without scoring for England. Now, he is not just their most clinical player but their most important one, too. Every time he picks up possession, Southgate’s side come to life.
That’s certainly what happened at St Mary’s. Sterling’s equalising goal, headed home from inside Kosovo’s six-yard box, was an example of the striking instincts which have transformed his game, but it was his involvement in the others which showed just how important he is to England’s attack.
For their second, he expertly spun away from the advancing Amir Rrahmani, charged forward, and set up Harry Kane. For their fourth and fifth, he selflessly teed up Jadon Sancho for his first two goals in international football. Sterling could have had more himself – he was denied by the post in the second half – but this was another outstanding night’s work.
His confidence is sky high and the stats prove it. As well as his goal and assists, Sterling completed nine successful dribbles at St Mary’s – the most by any England player in any of their qualifying games so far. Southgate still has issues to address in this team, but if Sterling can produce the same kind of performances at Euro 2020, England will be difficult to stop.
No Kane concerns
It was fitting of such a bizarre game that Kane failed to score his penalty. The Tottenham striker is deadly from the spot, with Southgate praising his meticulous preparation after he converted twice against Bulgaria, but after being forced to wait for Kosovo players to stop infringing at St Mary’s, he saw his effort parried by goalkeeper Arijanet Muric.
It was only his fifth penalty miss from 37 attempts for club and country and, in truth, it should be no great cause for concern. Instead, Southgate can take encouragement from how clinically he took his goal in the first half, drilling a diagonal finish through Muric’s legs from an acute angle.
Southgate will also be pleased by how Kane continues to knit England’s attack together. He is at his most deadly in the opposition’s box, of course, but he is also effective when dropping deep and allowing England’s pacey wide players to charge into space behind him. It was from one such position that he teed up Sterling’s best chance of the second half.
Sancho makes his case
Sancho had to settle for a place on the bench against Bulgaria on Saturday, but he certainly made the most of starting opportunity against Kosovo. The 19-year-old, who has begun the Bundesliga season with two goals and three assists in three games for Borussia Dortmund, continued in the same vein on the international stage.
In fact, this performance was a continuation of what we’ve already seen from Sancho in an England shirt. His pace and skill caused problems for Kosovo from the start and his goals made him the youngest player to score twice in a single game for England since Wayne Rooney in 2004.
Sancho is a maverick talent who can create something out of nothing, but against Kosovo he showed he can also be trusted in possession. Before his substitution in the closing stages, he had completed 93 per cent of his passes – second only to Harry Maguire among his England team-mates.
It hints at the maturity that sets him apart form many players of the same age. Sancho will only recently have turned 20 by the time Euro 2020 rolls around, but if he continues to progress at the same rate then Southgate might find it hard to leave him out.
Rashford, Hudson-Odoi waiting in the wings
Of course, Sancho is not the only contender to join Kane and Sterling in Southgate’s first-choice front three. On the contrary, England have an embarrassment of riches in attack.
There was no goal for Marcus Rashford against Bulgaria on Saturday, but his performance at Wembley was still a reminder of what he offers. The Manchester United forward showed electrifying pace to win the first England penalty, with Southgate later suggesting that he is in fact better suited to playing in the wide positions than through the middle.
Southgate also name-dropped Callum Hudson-Odoi in the wake of that game. The Chelsea youngster is currently sidelined by an Achilles injury, but he impressed in the games against Czech Republic and Montenegro in March and clearly features prominently in Southgate’s plans.
He is just another weapon in England’s armoury. Southgate will question the complacency that allowed Kosovo to score three times, but with his forwards in this kind of form – and with reinforcements in reserve – there is certainly reason to be excited. England were reliant on set-pieces for goals not long ago. Now, they are firing on all cylinders.