Chief England Correspondent and Host of Gadsby’s England in Pristina
England confirmed their place at Euro 2020 with another demolition, the largest victory at the new Wembley Stadium and a fitting way to celebrate their 1,000th match. It was also stirring to see it done in front of some of England’s finest players of the past; when they were paraded on the pitch at half-time, we were reminded just how big a part these men played in our lives.
Other than the loss in Prague, England have scored a minimum of four goals per game in this Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, and an astonishing 33 overall. Belgium have the next highest tally with 30, but their group has six teams as opposed to Group A’s five. This does not take away from the gaping lack of quality of England’s opponents, but most of France, Belgium and Spain’s couldn’t defend against an army of grannies.
England are likely to add to this total on Sunday in Pristina, and although the fixture is of no consequence to Group A (Kosovo cannot qualify directly, but are in the playoffs by way of the Nations League), a win will increase England’s chances of being seeded next summer. The England team, fans—and even us media rabble!—have been welcomed like nobility by the Kosovan people, and England will want to thank the hosts—and sign off this qualification campaign—with as stylish a performance as possible.
An excruciating 90 minutes
There is, then, one inexorable fact: England’s attack will send chills down the spines of every side at Euro 2020. In a starting front line of Kane, Sterling, Sancho or Rashford, with the likes of Hudson-Odoi and Abraham in the wings, England are capable of inflicting an excruciating 90-minutes on their opponents.
Oh, and England will be playing all three group games and, should they get there, the semifinal and—go on, dare to dream—final at home. We said before the World Cup semifinal against Croatia that England would never have a better shot at glory…well, enter Euro 2020.
Hopes will turn to dust, however, if England do not lay concrete over their defensive sinkhole. Against Croatia last year, England’s defence was caught out, against the Netherlands in the summer, humiliated, and recently, against Kosovo and Czech Republic, downright embarrassed.
A bad sandwich
In the lead-up to major tournaments, we always talk about what weaknesses need to be addressed. But the fact of the matter is—and this is true of any side—there is very little an international manager can do to test different defensive lineups and find definitive solutions. The three or four internationals England play between now and next summer will certainly help, but they can only provide so many answers, and in some cases deceptive ones—a bad sandwich may be delicious in your mouth but then torment in your tummy; the extra half yard centre-halves get against March’s Spain in an apparent impressive defensive display can suddenly vanish against June’s Spain in a defensive meltdown. The process is dangerously opaque.
The scary truth is that the answers are often in the tournament itself. We didn’t really have an idea how solid England were in 1996 until we saw the gelling of Adams, Pearce, Southgate, Neville, Ince as the tournament unfolded.
There is no question, overall, that England have much to be optimistic about going into Euro 2020. But it wouldn’t be England without the tinges, without the shakes, without the palpitations, and you can be sure none of these will be going anywhere between now and then.
Southgate was the last Englishman to kick a ball at a major tournament in England. That was a magical summer, but with the wrong ending. Wouldn’t it be poetic if it were Southgate himself, 24 years later, who wrote the right one.