On October 9th 2017 the national team of Kosovo lost 2-0 to Iceland in a FIFA World Cup qualifier in Reykjavik. Exactly two years later they’ll play a friendly against Gibraltar.
In between there have been sixteen matches. Of the first fifteen Kosovo drew five and won ten. In the sixteenth they lost to England. The result doesn’t begin to tell the story.
England manager Gareth Southgate was wary of their threat before they arrived at St Mary’s. They’re not to be taken lightly and they proved it.
England’s 5-3 EURO qualifying win in Southampton was curious in its contradictions.
Eight goals and a missed penalty suggest a terrific match but England’s serene start to the group continued and no other outcome ever really looked possible.
They were irresistible up front, where Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho and Harry Kane were devastating in the first half. But the defending was shambolic.Embed from Getty Images
Michael Keane’s blind, square pass after 34 seconds was staggeringly stupid. Valon Berisha snaffled the opportunity to put Kosovo in front.
Keane’s motivation to make amends gave him enough lift to head a set piece back across goal for Sterling to turn in a simple header with just eight minutes on the clock and, for a period, England dazzled.
Sterling fed captain Kane, who reminded us of his unerring finishing ability before stepping out of the spotlight to give Sancho the England moment he’s craved.
The Borussia Dortmund forward saw his pass across goal bounce into the net off Kosovo defender Mergim Vojvoda to give England a 3-1 lead, then scored his first two England goals in quick succession, Sterling again the architect twice over.
If the front three were electric in the first half, England’s defending was shocking in the second.Embed from Getty Images
Berisha crashed in an impressive second within a few minutes of the restart. The second half did Bernard Challandes and Kosovo a great deal of credit and transformed a potential demolition into a clown car of a football match.
Keane’s partner at centre back, Harry Maguire, was driving when the wheels came off after 54 minutes, losing and then fouling Vedat Muriqi.
The striker took the penalty himself after a brief conversation with two-goal Berisha and any first half comparisons to San Marino in 1993 were banished once and for all.
Ross Barkley showed up for long enough to produce a barreling run into the heart of Kosovo’s defence with the score at 5-3, feeling a shove at the edge of the area and winning England a penalty.
Arijanet Muric saved Kane’s kick. It was a dire attempt and England were done scoring, settling for a 5-3 win that was at once very comfortable and not as comfortable as it should’ve been.Embed from Getty Images
In the immediate aftermath of this odyssey of oddities two strands of analysis emerged.
Firstly, it had been a fantastic football match for the neutrals, though it might be said that the 5-3 scoreline actually flattered it somewhat.
Secondly, for those of us with skin in the game it was anything but entertaining. Despite the striking scoreline the same old flourishes and concerns remain.
Sterling continued his ascent to genuine world class status. Sancho scored two of the most Sancho goals one could ever hope to see. Kane, mostly, was Kane.
The defence asked more questions than they answered yet again. Ben Chilwell and Trent Alexander-Arnold were fine, although their delivery from wide areas left plenty to be desired.
Maguire is established and Keane is becoming a trusted Southgate soldier who’s holding down a place in a top-half Premier League team, and, with John Stones absent, centre back looked for a fleeting moment to be a position resolved. It’s not.
And then there’s England’s midfield.
England’s bloody midfield.
If there are question marks over it when the team plays well there’s an entire Only Connect quiz book over it when it doesn’t.
Jordan Henderson continues in his role as popular scapegoat when in fact he again did what he does. He’s a hard-working, trophy-winning skipper whose purpose is to seamlessly provide a platform for other, more explosive players and he’s good at it.Embed from Getty Images
An England capable of reaching a major tournament final is probably an England that’s improved on Henderson. Right now he’s not a problem in need of an immediate solution.
Barkley might be. In winning England’s penalty he showed much of what’s great about his game: strength, balance, confidence and ambition. But against Kosovo he also displayed the decision-making flaws and dawdling on the ball that can make him so frustrating.
Declan Rice – no better or worse than alright on the night – deserves rather more time in an England shirt before being skewered on the pointy end of public criticism. He’s doing enough to earn that time.
England do have options and prospects. Harry Winks has a long international future ahead of him. Mason Mount and James Maddison were selected in the most recent squad. Jack Grealish is on the radar and there are others, not least Phil Foden in the Under-21 squad.
None are more proven than the incumbents and the onus is on Southgate to be imaginative, even experimental, in the middle of the park.
When Croatia knocked England out of the last World Cup it was the midfield where the match was lost. They haven’t yet found the answer.
Southgate has prioritised qualifying for EURO 2020 and understandably so, but after four wins from four he needs to take a risk or two in midfield in order to prepare for next summer.
With EURO 2020 less than a year away he still has a puzzle to solve.