England manager Gareth Southgate will have struggled to decide whether his glass was half-full or half-empty as he reflected on a thud and blunder night against Kosovo at St Mary’s.
First things first – everyone at Southampton enjoyed a thrilling Euro 2020 qualifier that led to a rousing ovation for both sides at the conclusion ofEngland’s chaotic 5-3 victory.
And Southgate will have revelled in England’s magnificent attacking display, spearheaded by a world-class performance from Raheem Sterling, who scored once as well as setting up two goals for Jadon Sancho and another for Harry Kane.
England’s attacking trident tormented Kosovo after central defender Michael Keane presented them with a goal inside the first minute, passing unerringly to Valon B erisha with a clear run at goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
Sadly, however, there must be a misery-guts side to this story even though England are celebrating four wins from four Euro 2020 qualifiers and are cruising through Group A after scoring 19 goals in those games.
The bottom line is this – England have little or no chance of beating quality international sides if they defend as shoddily and carelessly as this, if they give possession away as cheaply as this and are as easy to get at as Kosovo made it look.
Kosovo are improving rapidly, entering this game on the back of a 15 – game unbeaten run and with a victory over the Czech Republic that raised their hopes of being among the qualifiers next summer.
They are, however, currently ranked 120 th in the world.
This is a slightly false rating given their ability but the fact they pulled England back from 5-1 to 5-3 in the second half and created an air of anxiety and expectation among the fans at either end of St Mary’s says everything about the flaws in Southgate’s side.
England, defensively, were not good enough – nowhere near the standard that would be acceptable at the highest international level.
Keane was the first to err but he was certainly not the last.
West Ham United’s Declan Rice gave the ball away badly for Berisha’s second while Manchester United’s Harry Maguire clumsily failed to clear before hauling down Vedat Muriqi, who scored from the spot.
Maguire made an horrendous meal of the most basic piece of work to make it a treble helping of dreadful defending by England and for all the flair and fantasy of their attacking play there is no hiding away from the fact this is a serious weakness.
Southgate himself pointed at other errors,such as the lack of basic tracking back, that also exposed England. This was hardly a night of unbridled joy for England’s manager. There is much to concern him.
Imagine the likes of Belgium, France, Spain, Germany and a few others when faced with the sort of defending England produced against Kosovo?
In fact it might be better not to imagine it.
The attackers who play for those countries would be licking their lips at the idea of facing this England defense at a major tournament.
England still have Manchester City’s John Stones to come back but he had a nightmare in the Uefa Nations League semi-final against the Netherlands while Liverpool’s Joe Gomez, the best option outside the current selections, is not getting regular games at club level.
Southgate’s first choice defenders have not proved reliable against international opposition of the highest quality – and produced no evidence here to suggest they will do so any time soon.
Kosovo’s ability to run through England’s midfield and get at that soft center would also have concerned Southgate.
It may seem somewhat spoilsport to focus in on this negative af ter another important victory but to ignore it would be delusion. Southgate will not be letting it escape his attention.
For all the class and potency of England’s attack, their current defensive condition suggests they will need to rack up at least three goals against those teams mentioned previously to stand a chance of victory because there is no way they will not concede goals.
This task will not be as easy as it here against a Kosovo side committed to an all-out attacking strategy that occasionally left them wide open at the back.
England are horribly fallible in defense – but they are superbly irresistible in attack.
They have scored 14 goals in their three home games, more than any other nation in Euros qualifying so far.
And at the heart of it all was the brilliant Sterling, who produced a 45 – minute performance against Kosovo that was simply on another level from anyone else.
Sterling ended a barren 27 – game sequence stretching back three years when he scored twice in England’s 3-2 win in Spain almost a year ago – now he is irreplaceable, a talent reaching full maturity.
Since that game in Spain he has played seven games, scoring six goals in England’s qualifying games so far and producing four assists.
He simply could not be stopped in the first 45 minutes and his partnership with Kane is now reaching telepathic proportions as he set up England’s captain for his 26 th goal in 41 appearances, level with Bryan Robson and one behind David Platt.
Sterling has been involved in 12 goals in his last eight England games, with eight goals and four assists. He and Kane have combined for six goals under Southgate, at least three times as many as any other duo.
Kane’s performance contained a rare blemish when his second-half penalty was saved by Arijanet Muric, only his second miss in 10 attempts for England.
In the end it was not costly as Kosovo’s brave attempt at a miracle turnaround fell short and England can look at a Group A table with a flawless appearance.
But England’s display, particularly that occasionally shambolic defense, was not flawless and they will not come away unscathed if this is produced on a bigger stage.