England vs Kosovo: Gareth Southgate’s front three light up visitors but defensive frailties persist
England 5-3 Kosovo: This was a game that showcased the best of Raheem Sterling in a thrilling affair on the south coast
Now just half way through qualification, England seemingly only need one half of football to win games.
Raheem Sterling, meanwhile, seemingly just needs a moment’s opening to show he is very much in his prime. The Manchester City star, in his latest masterclass, brought the brilliantly refreshing Jadon Sancho along with him by setting up both the Borussia Dortmund forward’s goals.
Kosovo’s mild second-half comeback to make it a mere 5-3 illustrated that they are indeed a better team than everyone else in this group, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from the first half.
That opening 45 minutes – the opening 35 seconds apart – was probably England’s best spell of football under Southgate beyond that opening Nations League period away to Spain.
There was just such an impressively rampant ruthlessness to it, and maybe the first time in this campaign that England have moved up a gear as they scorched into a 5-1 lead after initially going behind. It was quite a response to that slightly embarrassing start.
This England team, however, don’t look like one as susceptible to embarrassment as so many of their predecessors. They’ve already altered so many realities around the side.
Another altered reality is that, after all the discussion over whether he is undroppable, Harry Kane no longer feels England’s most important player. And that was long before he missed that penalty, despite all the practice.
It’s because Sterling is really just so good, so complete, so dominant.
He ran the game and also became a symbol for the side in more than one sense. His exhilarating surges were a metaphor for England’s performance in this campaign as a whole, just powering through group opposition, no one able to stop them.
One of them was also the centre of what might be the idealised England goal, which here made it 4-1. It was the perfect combination of individual brilliance, understanding and collective co-ordination.
As Sterling again surged through the Kosovan half – just as he’d done minutes earlier for Kane’s supreme strike – the captain again peeled off to the left, Sancho to the right.
Arijanet Muric’s defence didn’t know where to go, meaning Sterling knew precisely where to put it. He played in Sancho, who then just changed it up in such dazzlingly disorientating fashion. Sheer pace was followed by measured precision, as Sancho so calmly slipped it in.
This was another element of England’s attacking: the tactical variety to it. It was just as symbolic that Sterling’s first came from that most rudimentary of goals, a set-piece header. Michael Keane made up for his opening error by winning a corner in the box, allowing the Manchester City forward to nod in.
England were away, as was Sterling. His turn-and-run for Kane’s strike was almost Paul Gascoigne-like, his little chip for Sancho’s second reminiscent of Mesut Ozil.
The greater point to all of this, though, is that Sterling has now developed as a player he is very much a commanding star in his own right – with no wider comparisons necessary.
The same might soon be said of Sancho, who showed the difference he makes to this England team with the jinking run that bamboozled Mergim Vojvoda into an own goal. That isn’t just a quality Southgate’s side have been lacking, but one the modern game has been lacking.
The opening 35 seconds did foreshadow the reality this wasn’t a totally flawless performance from England. You could even say it was a performance of two halves beyond the scoring: exceptional attacking, questionable defending. There were more errors in it than just Keane’s misplaced pass that set up Valon Berisha’s opening goal, which maybe reflects the huge margin for error in this group at the moment.
Berisha was given a huge amount of space just after half-time to make it 5-2, and Harry Maguire was at his clumsiest in “justifying a fall” from Vedat Muriqi for the same player to score a penalty.
There was then Kane having a penalty saved. So much for those 50 shots in practice.
It didn’t really matter, though. Sterling had by then done most of the damage. England, after just four games, have done most of the work as regards qualification.