England 5-3 Kosovo
England were world-class in attack and, at times, second-class in defence. Gareth Southgate had claimed there was not enough “jeopardy” in qualifying for Euro 2020 but England sent a message to the rest of Europe as to the danger they pose.
The danger is also to themselves, however, for as devastating as they were going forward led by the peerless, the almost unstoppable force that is Raheem Sterling they were uncertain at the back as they gifted three goals to Kosovo who, nevertheless, deserve huge credit for their own sterling performance.
The axis of Sterling and Harry Kane is such an accomplished combination - and it was added to by 19-year-old Jadon Sancho, with his first internationals goals – that England can be contenders for the finals next summer… but only if, and a big if, Southgate can cut out the errors behind them.
The good news is that England have scored 14 goals, in four games, in qualifying so far, more than any other nation. The bad news is the analysis will point to a familiar lack of game-management – with question marks over the midfield also – because England went in 5-1 up at half-time only to end this contest holding their breath as a shot by Swansea City’s Bersant Celina narrowly cleared Jordan Pickford’s far post.
It should not have been like that. No matter how well Kosovo played, how brave and fearless they were, it should have been game over with Southgate given the option of bringing on substitutes earlier than the 83rd minute. Instead he was left fretting about whether he can trust Michael Keane, whether Trent Alexander-Arnold went missing and if he can leave Declan Rice as the holding midfielder.
Southgate had predicted difficulties, he had said Kosovo – proud and undefeated in 15 games before this, the longest run in Europe – would be England’s biggest challenge. But not like this. He would not have expected England to be their own undoing with a goal given away after 34 seconds, another just after half-time and then the present of a penalty as Harry Maguire panicked.
Against that were some superb finishes, some excellent attacking play, a missed penalty, a post struck and the confirmation that England are exciting, entertaining and, as we all thought, still most emphatically a work-in-progress. It was breathlessly relentless and another fine advert for taking England on the road as they played their first competitive fixture away from Wembley since it re-opened in 2007.
Southampton lapped it up and not least the large Kosovan contingent – including Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri – with an estimated at 20,000 who descended on the south-coast, many making it into the stadium to see their team take the lead inside the first minute.
It was catastrophic as England played the ball out from the back. Maguire into the feet of Ross Barkley was fine as was the midfielder’s pass back to Keane but he, inexplicably, miscued his pass intended for Maguire with it going straight to Vedat Muriqi who slipped Valon Berisha in on goal. The Lazio midfielder capitalised on his fortune by lifting his shot calmly past Pickford.
Little wonder Barkley held his arms out in disbelief. He was, however, gesticulating to greater effect soon after as he placed the ball for a corner. Right arm up Barkley signalled a routine with his delivery being met by Keane who powerfully headed back across goal for Sterling – at 5ft 7in – to rise and nod the ball into the net for his eighth goal in eight England games. It was, as has become a Southgate hallmark, a well-worked set-piece routine and involved a bit of redemption, and relief, for Keane who played his part.
Sterling intervened again and this time he was provider by turning defender Amir Rrahmani on half-way using his strength and trickery to catch out the Kosovo captain and sprinting towards goal before off-loading the ball to his left. There was Kane who shifted onto his left foot and struck a fierce low drive through the legs of goalkeeper Aro Muric. That meant seven goals in seven games for Kane.
As slick as that was England were aided with their next goal. Fidan Aliti went down injured as he challenged Alexander-Arnold by the touchline but as Kosovo demanded play was stopped England, rightly, continued with Sancho working his way down the flank and crossing low where defender Mergim Vojvoda turned it into his own goal. Quite why Muric pulled his foot away, preventing him blocking the cross was strange and while coach Bernard Challandes raged at the injustice he surely should be questioning his own players.
Gloriously England did not let up with Rice tenaciously winning the ball back and Jordan Henderson setting Sterling away for him to run from deep and play a precise pass across the face of the penalty area. Sancho’s assured first touch gave him the time and the winger slotted low past Muric.
Just before half-time there was a second for Sancho with the outstanding Sterling tricking his way down the left, beating Florent Hadergjonaj, and again arrowing goalwards. He had the chance to shoot but elected to dink the ball to the unmarked Sancho who side-footed into the empty net.
England should have closed it down. It should have been over. Instead they worryingly lost the second-half 2-0 as Rice sloppily gave away possession and Muriqi picked out the unmarked Berisha who curled a shot high into the goal.
England blundered again. Maguire cut out a cross but made a mess of clearing it with Muriqi stealing in and the defender hurriedly bringing him down. The penalty was given and Muriqi sent it beyond Pickford’s grasp.
England needed to steady themselves and Barkley set off on a clever run that took him past two defenders with Rrahmani struggling and pulling him back. Kane stepped up to take the penalty but Muric, off his line, dived to his right to beat it out. After that Sterling collected Kane’s pass and struck a post and saw another shot deflected narrowly wide. There had been jeopardy after all for England. Unfortunately they had created it themselves.
Gareth Southgate speaks
That was a bizarre game. Obviously there were some poor errors for goals. I’m really pleased with the composure we showed to come back from the early mistake. Some devastating attacking play throughout. We used the ball really well. But the mistakes were obvious, there are areas where we need to do better. The outstanding parts of our play were obvious and the errors were obvious.
Full time England 5-3 Kosovo
That was fun and even though there were eight goals, there really should have been almost double that. Utterly madcap at times with terrible defending by both teams, great fortitude and skill from Kosovo going forward and first-half brilliance from England's front three and incisiveness from Barkley.
Gareth Southgate will be ripping his beard and barnet out about the defending, though. They never look secure whether they play three centre-backs or two, largely because in elite terms, none of them are all that much cop.
86 min England 5-3 Kosovo
Mount frees Rashford down the left with a deft shimmy and throughball, Rashford accelerates towards the box and spanks a right-foot shot that Muric blocks and Sterling pounces on the rebound from five yards and balloons it over. He was offside any road and Rashkaj is booked for blindsiding Mount after he released the pass with a vicious foul.
75 min England 5-3 Kosovo
England hare forward after a Kosovo counter breaks down and Sterling tries to bend a right-foot shot into the top right corner. It takes two deflections and trickle inches past the left post. From the corner which is bundled away, Henderson latches on to it in midfield, bends a run round the right and whips over a near-post cross that Keane glances into the side-netting. Eight goals and we could/should have had 12.
65 min England 5-3 Kosovo
Sterling is in acres of space earned by his pace but picks the wrong option when free. Instead of picking out Kane or Barkley, he scuffs it at the keeper, his City club-mate, who proceeds to kiss him in gratitude. Long delay before the pen for Paqarada to be booked, too, for encroaching.
Ross Barkley made 25 yards with a powerful dribble, cutting infield from the left to the 18-yard line, holding off Rrahmani until he got into the box and then going down from the force of the hand on his back that had been there for the preceding 10 yards. Halimi is booked for protesting.
54 min England 5-3 Kosovo
The left-footed centre-forward approaches the ball with a curved run and belts it to Pickford's left. The keeper reads it and dives that way, gets both hands to it but the ball bursts through them to hit the back of the net. Kosovo gave come out swinging haymakers and the quickness of their passing and movement is hurting England's bang average defence.
50 min England 5-2 Kosovo
Mistake by Rice who makes a gift of a mis-hit pass. It;s picked off by Muriqi who makes 10 yards up the right then opens his body to bend a left-foot pass over Maguire for Berisha who has entered the box down the inside-left channel. He stuns the pass with a half-volleyed trap, sends Henderson off to buy an Evening Post, and curls a right-foot shot into the top corner.
That looked offside. Kosovo's adventurousness has left them wide open at the back. They win the ball back again on the left from Vojvoda and Sterling is released by Rice's pass. He barrels forward and approaches the keeper on his right, draws him out and tries to dink it over. Instead he spoons an accidental pass across the six-yard box and Sancho, who must have been offside, rolled it into an empty net.
44 min England 4-1 Kosovo
England win the ball in their own half, race forward with Barkley, Kane and Sterling bullocking forward up the inside-left. plays the diagonal pass to Sancho who takes a touch to mobe wider and open it up for a right-foot shot. Muric's feet aren't quick enough to narrow the angle and the right-winger spanks a shot under his dive and into the net. It's a hot knife through butter.
38 min England 3-1 Kosovo
Kosovo are protesting with the self-righteousness and vigour of Aston Villa at Elland Road last season because Aliti was hurt in the build-up but seemed to be off the field and Alexander-Arnold didn't foul him. They want the ball to be put out but Sancho bombed on, head down and took it to the byline and fizzed over a daisycutter. The hapless keeper let it run past him for no apparent reason and the right-back on the cover was surprised to be forced to deal with it and sliced it in from two yards.
34 min England 2-1 Kosovo
Kosovo look dangerous on the break. They pass neatly, have an adventurous outlook and are cute at making space for their forward runners. Vojvoda joins the attack up the right when Miriqi lays it off and he hurtles towards the box and spanks a swerving shot into the side-netting.
33 min England 2-1 Kosovo
Alexander-Arnold, whose assist for the winner against Barceloan last year with his feint and surprise corner was the inspiration for Kosovo's winner on Saturday, bombs up the right, stops and plays it infield. England switch to the left rapidly and Sterling's run is ended when Vojvoda takes the sensible option and runs the ball out for a corner.
20 min England 2-1 Kosovo
Sterling receives the ball in the centre-circle, turns Rrahmani and blazes away straight up the middle of the park for 30 yards then slides a pass to Kane on the left of the box. The centre-forward takes a touch and slots a powerful left-foot shot across goal and through Muric's legs to put England ahead.
15 min England 1-1 Kosovo
Both Kosovo full-backs are pushed high and Hadergjonaj and Vojvoda both cross over the box to each other after Alexander-Arnold's wayward defensive header. In the end England mop up the ball and move forward through Sterling's pace. He delays his pass to Alexander-Arnold a second too long and the right-back lumps his cross into the crowd.
Michael Keane has done a Stuart Pearce against San Marino with a dreadful blind pass - this time across the 18-yard lone and in stole Valon Berisha to lift a shot over Jordan Pickford after 35 seconds.
It would be an insult to the Keystone Kops to say Keane's defending was of their calibre. It was even more farcical than that.
For those of you watching in black and white
England Pickford; Alexander-Arnold, Keane, Maguire, Chilwell; Henderson, Rice, Barkley; Sancho, Kane, Sterling.
Substitutes Heaton, Gomez, Mount, Wilson, Mings, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Pope, Trippier, Maddison, Winks, Rashford, Rose.
Kosovo Muric, Vojvoda, Rrahmani, Aliti, Hadergjonaj, Voca, Halimi, Muslija, Celina, Valon Berisha, Muriqi.
Substitutes Ujkani, Kryeziu, Zhegrova, Rashani, Nuhiu, Dresevic, B Berisha, Raskaj, Bekaj, Leart Paqarada, Hasani.
Referee Felix Zayer (Germany).
England bring up their half-century at St Mary’s tonight in their Euro 2020 Group A match against Kosovo, who are unbeaten in their past 15 games. What half-century? This author may have sat too long for any good he has been doing lately in the summer game, now leaking into mid-September, but has not gone entirely hatstand. Kosovo are the 50th Uefa nation to play England in a football match. If you can name the five outstanding members England have yet to play, award yourself a biscuit*.
In the past 20 years, England have played maiden internationals against 13 European nations, winning 11 and drawing two (the most recent, a 0-0 in a World Cup qualifier at Wembley with Montenegro under Fabio Capello).The oher draw came at St Mary’s in 2002 on their last visit to Southampton when they had twice to come back from behind to draw with the country now known as North Macedonia 2-2. Those of you with long memories will recall that David Seaman chucked one in from a corner and never played for England again.
Having won all three of their previous qualifiers in Group A with ease - 5-0 over Czech Republic, 5-1 over Montenegro and 4-0 over Bulgaria - they approach Kosovo in fine fettle. Yet their opponents, who were allowed to join Uefa and Fifa only in May 2016 and lost nine of their 10 qualifiers for Russia 2018, will be their most formidable challengers, having won in Bulgaria with a 93rd-minute goal and beaten the Czechs in Pristina last Saturday 2-1 after dropping a goal behind.
They’re a young team and game as anything. Here’s a flavour of how motivated they are, encapsulated by the Fenerbahce forward, Vedat Muriqi, who scored the equaliser on Saturday. “Me, my team-mates and all the staff, are ready to die on the field,” he said. “We’ll try to give 1,000% for this shirt and for this country.” There may be as many as 20,000 Kosovo fans in Southampton tonight to roar them on.
*Armenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Faroe Islands, Gibraltar and Latvia.