England: making qualifiers fun again.
After eight Euro 2020 qualifying matches in Group A Gareth Southgate’s side have ended with 37 goals and 21 points.
The shock 2-1 defeat by Czech Republic last month has been followed by a 6-0 win over Bulgaria, a 7-0 thrashing of Montenegro, and today’s 4-0 victory against Kosovo.
It has been an exhilarating show of power – limited teams steamrollered in impressive, relentless fashion to end with three more goals than England have ever managed in a qualifying campaign.
Qualifying has traditionally been predictable fare, with the end result a formality. But after years of underwhelming, England are now a reliable source of entertainment.
The score line may have flattered them, Kosovo may have put up much more of a fight than previous opponents, and defensive frailties were evident, but the dynamism of England’s attack ensured they ended the campaign and 2019 on a high note.
After Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain caught the eye against Montenegro, it was the turn of Harry Winks to step up and display the depth of options Southgate now has in central midfield.
With Declan Rice in the holding position, the Tottenham midfielder was asked to play further forward and show the different strings to his bow. Here was conclusive prove he can be more than just a deep-lying playmaker.
Winks was the stand-out performer in the middle of the park, latching onto Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pass and keeping his cool to open the scoring, as well as playing several incisive balls in the attacking third.
“I like to consider myself as someone who can play in pivot or as a No8 as well,” he said post-match. “I like both. It’s difficult to say what I prefer.” On this evidence we might be seeing more of Winks higher up the pitch in the future.
Rashford packs a punch
Callum Hudson-Odoi was handed a real opportunity by Southgate, starting on the left of England’s 4-3-3, but he didn’t take it.
It was only when his replacement, Marcus Rashford, took the field in the 58th minute that England went through the gears. The Manchester United forward was exceptional, providing a pacey, direct threat every time he received the ball.
Rashford’s goal – his ninth in the last 10 games for club and country – was the best moment of the game. He charged forward, was found perfectly by the recalled Raheem Sterling and slotted a inch-perfect finish into the bottom corner without breaking stride.
Rashford looks so at home on the left. Hudson-Odoi and Jadon Sancho are going to have to enjoy near-faultless seasons if they are to nail down a starting spot at Euro 2020.
Kane’s killer instinct
If Rashford’s goal was the most aesthetically pleasing, Harry Kane’s was the most predictable. The England captain pounced on a botched clearance by Fidan Aliti to half-volley in his 12th goal of a remarkable qualifying campaign from close range.
The strike meant Kane has now netted in each of England’s qualifiers. He is the first person to manage the feat in England’s history.
In truth he was kept quiet for the majority of the tie in Pristina and yet in classic Kane fashion he was alert when a chance came his way to make the game safe at 2-0.
It was Kane who robbed Ibrahim Dresevic in injury-time to tee up Mason Mount, who made it 4-0 with his first senior goal for his country.
England’s defending, particularly from set pieces, needs improving. Kosovo frequently found space in behind Ben Chilwell at left-back and there was often too much space on the edge of the penalty area.
Next summer, against better opposition, England are likely to be punished if they are similarly open. But with a front three of the quality of Kane, Sterling and Rashford, England are good enough to trouble any opposition.
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