• Sancho hit a brace as England secured a 5-3 victory against Kosovo at St Mary’s in a Euro 2020 qualifier
• Valon Berisha gave Kosovo a shock lead after just 34 seconds following a mistake by Michael Keane.
Look, it was such fun. Cracking game, cracking atmosphere, another emphatic win for England, yet still a night few Kosovans will ever forget. Only a curmudgeon would have left St Mary’s without a great big smile, heading into the night, happy to have been here.
Yet how long that warm feeling lasts depends very much on the character of the individual. Optimist or pessimist; glass half-full or half-empty?
Did you see the most dangerous forward line in European football, tearing apart a nation that had gone 14 games without defeat and racing to a 5-1 half-time lead; or did you see a sloppy, vulnerable defence, that gave up three goals against a fledgling nation missing five first-team players, and lost the second-half 2-0?
Those who saw the former will maintain that England have a genuine chance at the European Championship next summer; those who saw the latter will believe this team might be horribly undone by any nation with hopes of winning the tournament.
The divide is that strong. Much like the nation’s politics at the moment, this is a team of extremes. As much as Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Jadon Sancho looked like scoring them, so Harry Maguire and Michael Keane, in particular, seemed capable of shipping them.
Gareth Southgate, being a coach and a former defender, probably tends towards pessimism in private, even if his public persona will have celebrated the win. Jose Mourinho used to stop any training match that edged towards 3-3, describing it as a hockey score, and accusing his players of not taking it seriously.
Southgate won’t feel all that different about the errors England made at the back, certainly after similar mishaps proved so costly at the Uefa Nations Cup finals.
Earlier this week, he reeled off the teams he expects to contend the 2020 European Championship finals. It was the usual suspects: Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Portugal. Can England score four against any of those teams - because they’ll certainly concede three if they defend like this?
Careless passing, poor positioning, impetuous when calm was required. If there was a list of defensive deadly sins, England were guilty of most of them. So it is probably just as well that Southgate’s forward line is currently rewriting European football’s history books. No nation, in either a Uefa World Cup or European Championship qualifying campaign, has started like this.
On Saturday, England became the first team to score four goals or more in their first three qualifying matches— and on Tuesday night they went one better. Either the level in Group A is depressingly low, or Southgate has crafted that rarest of beasts: a genuinely freewheeling England team. Kosovo are supposed to be good. Kosovo, as a new nation, are imbued with mythical qualities born of national fervour and pride. Yet it didn’t count for much in the first-half here. They took the lead within the first minute - but so did San Marino against England, famously, in 1993.
The immediate repercussions were rather similar. Not that Kosovo are comparable to San Marino in either spirit or ability. They are a brave team, who want to play on the front foot. They have been nobody’s whipping boys to here and may yet live to meet England again in the finals.
But just as San Marino were swept aside having enjoyed their moment of glory, so Kosovo were quickly undone by England’s lightning fast front trio. They couldn’t handle them, couldn’t handle their speed, couldn’t resist their intent. Kosovo were 5-1 down by half-time and it was not a score-line that flattered England.
It was also another huge vindication for Southgate and not only because he kept faith with England’s most influential player, Raheem Sterling, but because he was bold enough to change the forward line after a 4-0 win, introducing Jadon Sancho for Marcus Rashford and being rewarded with goals, as well as a devastating threat on the right.
After Sancho’s second he wrapped an arm around Sterling and pointed him out to the crowd - as if any introduction were needed. Sterling was simply sensational. It is incredible to think that this time last year, heads were being scratched as 1,102 days passed without a goal for England. Kane showed impressive composure to beat Arijanet Muric after Sterling did excellently to find him
Southgate kept faith, though, and was ultimately rewarded with a goal against Spain in October. Since then, Sterling has scored eight in 12 matches for his country.
Yet last night was about more than just finishing. Sterling was also the architect of three of England’s five goals, his pace on the left or through the middle terrifying the Kosovans who were backing off at a speed that suggested a runaway combine harvester, not a wide forward on the loose.
Pep Guardiola deserves credit, too, for bringing this out of his player, but whatever strides were being made at Manchester City would have been worthless, without Southgate’s endorsement. A weaker manager may have given up on Sterling. Southgate never wavered.
Just as he refuses to waver on playing the ball out from the back, even if some of his central defenders appear unequal to the task. Latest to fail the test, Michael Keane, of Everton, at fault for Kosovo’s opener inside a minute.
Joe Gomez of Liverpool would appear the better bet right now but, where he can, Southgate favours those in regular action for their clubs. So Keane partnered Harry Maguire, and Keane made the horrid, sloppy error that rewarded Kosovo the first time they applied pressure.
England knocked it about at the back, Maguire to Jordan Henderson, Henderson back to Keane. It wasn’t the Liverpool man’s greatest decision but Keane could easily have gone back again, to his Everton team-mate Jordan Pickford. Instead he struck the ball square, ostensibly to Maguire, but falling instead to Kosovo’s Verdat Muriqi. He fed it swiftly into Valon Berisha, whose finish showed no sign of nerves, given this was arguably the biggest game in Kosovo’s history.
Yet at the weekend Southgate said he would not swap England’s forward permutations for any trio in the world, and it soon became apparent why. His team took the game from Kosovo before half-time - and they most certainly needed to, given the woeful defensive display that overtook the second-half. Had England not scored five times in 37 first-half minutes, this could have been embarrassing.
Keane made amends, of sorts, with the first. Sancho won a corner which Ross Barkley curled to the far post, met by Keane with an intelligent run. His header back across goal found Sterling, not the biggest presence in the box, but popping up with a surprising number of headers these days. He steered the ball past goalkeeper Arijanet Muric, and England were level.
And swiftly ahead. Sterling again, turning superbly on the centre circle, losing his man and speeding down the middle before releasing Kane. The moment England’s captain controlled it, the crowd sensed goal, and he didn’t disappoint, A lovely low finish leaving Muric no chance. If he stays fit he will undoubtedly overtake Wayne Rooney’s scoring record.
If it is Rooney’s record to overtake, mind. Closing on him rapidly is own goals, totalling 52 to Rooney’s 53 after the hapless intervention of Mergim Vojvoda. Kosovo were furious that Fidan Aliti was down following a challenge from Trent Alexander-Arnold, but there didn’t look to be much to it.