England have enjoyed a straightforward Euro 2020 qualifying campaign so far, beating Czech Republic 5.0, Montenegro 5-1 and Bulgaria 4-0. The performances have been impressive without the Three Lions really being tested. But Tuesday nights bizarre 5-3 victory over Kosovo provided evidence that yet another comfortable qualification route to a major final might end in more disappointment if England do not get things right at the back.
This has been a concern since John Stones gifted Holland a goal in the semi-finals of the Nations League in the summer; but that was against the Dutch so was forgotten about as they are currently one of the world’s best young teams. However, three mistakes against Kosovo, who despite showing glimpses of brilliance are a long way off international football’s elite, is far more concerning. It seems that England really struggle to defend against teams that press them effectively.
On Saturday, Bulgaria came to Wembley and spent 90 minutes sitting back, but they had squandered three decent chances in that 4-0 defeat. Then on Tuesday at Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium, Kosovo were in front after just 35 seconds. Ross Barkley didn’t help Michael Keane with his pass backwards to him, allowing Kosovo to quickly close him down, but Keane panicked and tried to play the ball across to Harry Maguire, where Vedat Muriqi was waiting to cut it out and give Velon Berisha the chance to smash a shot past Jordan Pickford.
OK, the lead only lasted seven minutes, Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho and Harry Kane running riot for the rest of the first half to give England a 5-1 lead at half time, but it’s not the goals-for that Southgate will be thinking about, rather the fact Kosovo could score three goals so easily.
England are all but qualified for next year’s tournament, but the task is now not to see how many goals England can finish qualifying with, but to find a way or a system to cut out the ridiculous mistakes that have cost the Three Lions on too many occasions. There is no point worrying what Sterling and Kane can do to harm the likes of Spain, France, Belgium, Germany and Holland, when England look so capable of shooting themselves in the foot when being pressed by good teams.
Southgate went with the partnership of Michael Keane and Harry Maguire for this round of qualification matches, but the duo do not look like a natural pair. Maguire is undoubtedly first choice centre-back, but who plays alongside him is yet to be decided.
It is likely that Southgate will turn back to Stones once the Man City man is fit, particularly as Aymeric Laporte’s injury should guarantee him more playing time at City. Stones and Maguire were excellent for England in a back three at the World Cup in Russia, but Southgate looks committed to playing with a back four who are expected to play the ball out from the back.
England do have time to fix the problem, but the lessons must be learnt quickly if they are to be considered as potential Euro 2020 winners.