Sancho, Sterling proving to be England's greatest strength; defensive questions persist
SOUTHAMPTON, England -- It should come as no surprise that a national team whose sole World Cup success (1966) was achieved by a side known as the "Wingless Wonders" have often struggled to find room for creative wide players. England's 5-3 victory over Kosovo in Euro 2020 qualifying Tuesday showed that is no longer the case.
England have never lacked archetypal players -- the gallant centre-back, the tireless box-to-box midfielder, the bruising centre-forward -- but with occasional notable exceptions (Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney in the 1940s and 1950s, John Barnes and Chris Waddle in the 1980s), slippery wingers have rarely been one of their calling cards.
Recent history serves only to underline the trend. Where England have played with wide players at the past few major tournaments, they have tended to be either repurposed central midfielders (Steven Gerrard, James Milner) or out-of-position strikers (Daniel Sturridge, Wayne Rooney) rather than genuine wide men.
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England's approach at last year's World Cup, where wing-backs Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young provided the width, suggested Gareth Southgate was prepared to do away with wide forwards entirely. But since switching to a 4-3-3 system for the beginning of the Nations League campaign last year, pace and penetration in wide areas have become crucial aspects of England's game.
And while Tuesday's slapdash 5-3 win highlighted the pressing defensive issues that Southgate needs to address, it also demonstrated that, in Jadon Sancho and Raheem Sterling, he has at his disposal two wingers who can elevate England's attacking play to a new dimension.
Sancho opened his international account with a brace and forced the hapless Mergim Vojvoda to put through his own net, while Sterling ran the show, cancelling out Valon Berisha's shock early opener and teeing up goals for Harry Kane and Sancho. The 24-year-old has now scored eight goals in his past eight England games, and with six goals in his first five appearances of the season for Manchester City, there is a case to be made that he is currently the most effective attacking player in the sport.
Sterling's goal in the eighth minute -- a catlike spring to head home after Michael Keane had nodded Ross Barkley's corner back across goal -- showcased the six-yard box cunning that has become his trademark under Pep Guardiola. His assist for the second goal was a masterpiece, as he rolled Amir Rrahmani near the halfway line and surged into space before slipping a pass wide to Kane, who bludgeoned a left-foot shot between Arijanet Muric's legs.
Had things panned out differently, Sancho might have been teeing up some of Sterling's City goals. Chafing against Guardiola's desire to ease him into the first-team picture at the Etihad Stadium, Sancho left for Borussia Dortmund in 2017 and to date has been entirely vindicated; 13 goals and 16 assists in his breakout season led to speculation about his future that Dortmund shut down -- City's crosstown rivals United were among those linked -- and he has picked up where he left off in the new campaign, scoring three goals and laying on four assists.
Sancho's performance at St Mary's against a willing, vocally supported Kosovo side showed that he is ready to take his club form onto the international stage. In the space of eight minutes before half-time, the 19-year-old effectively put the game to bed, first dancing past Florent Hadergjonaj and drilling in a low cross that Vojvoda apologetically nudged into his own net.
Moments later, he opened his international account, gathering Sterling's pass from the left and slamming a low shot past Muric. The two wingers linked up again in first-half stoppage time, when Sterling destroyed Vojvoda for pace on the left before dinking a cross shot past Muric for Sancho to turn in his second.
England have scored goals with rarely enjoyed freedom during the current campaign -- 5-0 against Czech Republic, 5-1 against Montenegro, 4-0 against Bulgaria, at Wembley on Saturday -- but this was the first time they had racked up five in one half. The half-time whistle drew a standing ovation.
If Southgate harboured any concerns about people getting carried away as he made his way toward the changing rooms, the first 10 minutes of the second period will have emphatically disabused him of that worry. England had been caught cold after 35 seconds of the first half -- Berisha punishing Keane's careless square pass to put Kosovo ahead -- and it was a similar story in the second. Four minutes in, Declan Rice lost the ball in midfield, Jordan Henderson misjudged the flight of Vedat Muriqi's lofted pass and Berisha curled a well-placed shot past Jordan Pickford to make it 5-2.
Harry Maguire was at fault for Kosovo's third just six minutes later, clumsily bringing down Muriqi, who dispatched the ensuing penalty. England had over £100 million worth of centre-back on the pitch in Manchester United's Maguire and Everton's Keane, but this was a night where Liverpool's Joe Gomez advanced a strong case for a starting berth despite not setting foot on the pitch.
Kane should have added some gloss to the scoreline when Barkley won a penalty after being bundled to the deck by Rrahmani, but after politely declining Sancho's request to take the kick himself, the Tottenham Hotspur striker uncharacteristically fluffed his lines, with Muric diving to his right to save.
A bright late cameo from Marcus Rashford underlined the newfound talent and depth England enjoy in wide positions. But if he, Sterling and Sancho are to lift Southgate's men to glory next summer, they will require a sturdier stage on which to perform.