Kosovo v England: Time to experiment for Gareth Southgate’s Euro 2020 hopefuls
Tomorrow’s trip to Kosovo is the beginning of a process which must turn the Three Lions from brilliant flat-track bullies into a team capable of competing with the best.
Bar Steve McClaren’s ill-fated attempt to reach Euro 2008, qualifying for major tournaments has become increasingly straight-forward for a country whose youth set-up is fast becoming the envy of the world.
Picking 23 quality players will not be difficult for manager Gareth Southgate. Striking the right balance is far more complex.
Harry Kane has not let up since winning the 2018 World Cup golden boot, scoring nine goals in five internationals this season and ripping page after page out of the record books during Thursday’s 7-0 win over Montenegro.
Tammy Abraham’s first full season with Chelsea points to a capable deputy. Either side of Kane, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi match searing pace with outstanding quality.
Attacking midfielders Mason Mount, Ross Barkley and James Maddison have those selected for the run to the World Cup semi-finals – Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Ruben Loftus-Cheek – sweating.
Full-backs Ben Chilwell and Trent Alexander-Arnold had a hand in all five of Thursday’s first-half goal, but have Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker, Joe Gomez, Danny Rose and Luke Shaw ready if their form slips.
Perversely, an angry Sterling attacking Gomez on the training ground – or rather the reaction to it – showed unity is not a problem on the field. When Gomez was baffling booed on Thursday, Sterling defended him on Twitter.
“The whole dressing room is together,” insisted Southgate, “The narrative that seems to be out there, you would have thought we were a camp in absolute disarray and that just isn’t the case.”
They are, though, far from the finished product.
Last month’s defeat in Prague showed how vulnerable England are when their concentration is not at its height. But for Jordan Pickford, Montenegro might have scored twice even in such a non-contest. An excellent shot-stopper, he too is prone to lapses but it is September 2018 since England started without Pickford.
Michael Keane has been an unconvincing central defensive sidekick for Harry Maguire and while John Stones was selected in midweek and may be again tomorrow, he has a battle to play regularly for Manchester City. Tyrone Mings, Fikayo Tomori and Gomez are blessed with talent, but not experience.
Southgate has favoured one holder and two attacking central midfielders in qualifying, but will that cut it against the very best? The Nations League qualifying campaign suggested it might but the finals exposed a soft centre.
The experimentation must begin in Kosovo. Mings, Tomori, Mount, Maddison, Gomez and Harry Winks need minutes – minutes the latter pair are struggling for at club level – against higher-calibre opponents than England have faced in qualifying.
The door must be left open for late runners. Could Sheffield United’s Jack O’Connell be one?
Thursday’s most fascinating aspect – and such was the mismatch, there were not many – was Alexander-Arnold moving to midfield in the second half.
Could there be a creative solution at centre-back too? Walker can play in a three-man central defence, what about a two? The longer he has worked for Pep Guardiola, the more he has morphed from a right-back who doubles as a winger into one comfortable as an extra central defender.
There is much to do, but England are starting from a good place. Make it to next summer’s Wembley semi-finals and they will end at one too.