Jadon Sancho the difference as blunders mar England’s 5-3 win against Kosovo

Daniel Taylor at St Mary’s on 10 September 2019

It was a wild and eccentric evening and, for Gareth Southgate, a mix of satisfaction and confusion. His players had scored five times in the first half, yet how could he be entirely happy when it was difficult to remember the last time England’s defence appeared so accident-prone? Or another game, certainly in their recent past, when they have sieved so many poor goals?

The bottom line, taking the positive view, is that England won again at the top of Group A and that means they will pass the 10-year mark since the last time they lost a qualifying match, against Ukraine in October 2009. Jadon Sancho celebrated his first international goals, Raheem Sterling maintained his sparkling form and Harry Kane enhanced his scoring statistics again. Kane is now level with Bryan Robson on the list of all-time England scorers, with 26 goals, though he passed up the chance to catch David Platt in 12th position when his second-half penalty was saved – and that in itself was a measure of how England produced the unexpected at times.

It must have been lots of fun for the Southampton crowd but Southgate cannot have been encouraged by the way Kosovo scored twice in the second half without reply, especially when England had also suffered the ignominy of going behind only 34 seconds into the match – a goal that will be remembered as a personal ordeal for Michael Keane.

It was one of the quickest goals ever scored against England and for Keane the difficult truth was that it was not his first calamity in this qualifying programme. The same player had also been badly at fault when Montenegro opened the scoring against England in March and perhaps the best that could be said was that, then like now, he did at least partially make up for it.

Keane headed in the equaliser in Podgorica, leading ultimately to a 5-1 victory, and this time his aerial threat led to Sterling levelling the score only six minutes after the shock of Valon Berisha’s opener. Sterling was inside the six-yard area and Keane’s far-post header from a corner left the Manchester City player with the opportunity to nod in a goal that drastically changed the complexion of the evening.

That was Sterling’s eighth goal in as many appearances for his country – could it really be true he had gone three years without scoring earlier in his international career? – though his most exceptional work came later in the first half when a brilliantly disguised turn in the centre circle led directly to Kane scoring. As Sterling drove through the middle, Kane peeled off to the left. England’s captain took the shot on his left foot and Ari Muric, Kosovo’s goalkeeper, let the ball run beneath his body.

Southgate was entitled to be impressed by the determination of his players to make up for what had happened in the opening exchanges. Another team might have lost confidence because it was, to say the least, an extraordinary moment: England’s players passing the ball between themselves in their own half and then Keane, trying to find Harry Maguire, presenting it straight to Vedat Muriqi, Kosovo’s lead striker, just outside the penalty area. Berisha turned his shot past the oncoming Jordan Pickford and, briefly, it felt like England might be in for an unpleasant evening.

Very soon, though, the boisterous corner of Kosovo supporters found out how difficult it can be against elite opponents. Sterling, in particular, was relentless in his desire to get behind the opposition and Kosovo’s increasing desperation could probably be summed up by England’s third goal. Sancho drove in a low cross from the right. Muric pulled his foot away when he had the chance to block it and the ball flew in off Mergim Vojvoda for an own goal.

Sancho’s first goal was a right-foot finish from Sterling’s perfectly weighted pass and the same two players combined again to make it 5-1 in first-half added time. Sterling’s pass left Sancho with the simplest of chances, barely three yards out with the goalkeeper stranded, and England had scored three times in a six-minute blitz.

Again, however, they were guilty of a strange lack of focus at the start of the next half. This time it was Declan Rice with the loose pass. Muriqi’s cross picked out Berisha and England’s defence were badly out of position as he cut inside Jordan Henderson to beat Pickford with a splendid, rising shot.

Maybe England were guilty of complacency. Whatever it was, they continued to defend obligingly and next it was Maguire’s turn to wave an apologetic hand. He had not properly managed to clear a cross and, trying to make up his mistake, tripped Muriqi. It was a clear penalty and Muriqi scored to Pickford’s left.

The next penalty decision was less obvious, for an alleged foul on Ross Barkley, but Muric blocked Kane’s effort and perhaps the only surprise was there were no more goals in the final 35 minutes.

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