Gareth Southgate picked out England’s fixture against Kosovo as a real test for the Three Lions, and on that front he was certainly correct.
Pitted against a nation that declared independence in 2008, had it’s national side accepted into FIFA in 2012 and were unbeaten in all five Euro 2020 qualifiers, England flapped in the first minute and went behind after a Michael Keane error.
They quickly made amends though, thanks to the excellence of Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho. Five first half goals in reply saw the game effectively sewn up by half time. In attack, England have little to worry about.
But after the break, Kosovo came out with fire in their bellies – a kind of fire that comes from being a proud new nation – and hit two goals within the first 10 minutes of the second half.
Kosovo were admirable to watch. They turned up to the game with guns blazing, and were not afraid to throw players forward in attack. This was at times to their detriment though, as England’s scintillating attack tore up the other end of the pitch.
Sitting back and soaking up pressure was clearly not the Kosovan game-plan, and their willingness to get in England’s faces rattled the Three Lions in defence.
To say ‘in defence’ is a tad misleading, however. That would generally suggest that it was the act of defending was the main issue for England. It can be and the Three Lions’ defending is at times questionable, but that wasn’t the real issue of the night.
The real issue was a sloppiness in possession, in defence. Kosovo’s first and second goals came from sloppy passes under a bit of pressure, first from Michael Keane and then from Declan Rice.
There is a lack of surety in possession from England’s current central defensive trio – Keane and Harry Maguire in defence, with Rice the deepest lying midfielder. Keane and Rice both displayed lapses in concentration against Kosovo, and while Maguire is the strongest of the three he is not entirely unsusceptible. His poor defending led to Kosovo’s penalty.
What’s interesting is that all three had an excellent pass success rate – Maguire with 94%, Keane 91% and Rice 92%. But in key moments under pressure, when Kosovo got in their faces, they looked highly fallible.
Kosovo caused England issues, and top level international teams could rip through them. Back in June in the Nations League semi-final, England found themselves more and more dominated by the Netherlands, crumbling in extra-time after two possession errors in defence.
The culprit that day was John Stones, but England’s problems lie deeper than just lapses in concentration. There is a lack of coordination and movement to get the ball into midfield successfully, something which is hindered both by the man on the ball and his teammates around him failing to provide adequate options.
What’s frustrating is that Southgate potentially does have the personnel to turn this around. England need more quality in possession but James Maddison, Harry Winks and Mason Mount are struggling to get a look in.
Winks has fulfilled the role of a deep lying midfielder for Tottenham on many occasions now. Maddison created more chances than any other player in the Premier League last season. And Mount has been climbing above Ross Barkley in the Chelsea pecking order.
But Southgate persists with a more technically limited midfield of Rice, Henderson and Barkley as the sole creative outlet.
England need more quality in possession to cut out the silly errors and help build from deep to feed the forward line. They cannot be solely reliant on the brilliance of their attacking trident, who were able to run riot on Tuesday night but will likely be starved of service against stronger sides.
Southgate has made it clear that he intends to play the ball out from the back, so why isn’t he utilising the personnel to do so? Injuries and lack of game time have hampered some such as Stones and Joe Gomez for this round of international fixtures, but Southgate has little excuse when it comes to the midfield.
It is painstakingly clear what England’s problem is, yet little is being done to resolve it. The likes of Maddison won’t necessarily fix everything, but what is frustrating is that this solution has not been properly tested.
Time is running out for Southgate to prepare for the Euros, and England need to fix this as quickly as possible.