The 0-4 scoreline might slightly flatter England but the victory certainly doesn’t.
A caller to a radio show after this UEFA EURO 2020 qualifying win away in Kosovo lazily burped out the view that the hosts were the better side as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
They were not. Kosovo were presented with a below-par England defensive display and failed to test Nick Pope, the Burnley goalkeeper making his first competitive start for the national team.
The win sealed the formality of Group A winners England entering this months EURO draw as one of the top seeds for the finals but otherwise it was a case of winning with one eye on the summer.
There was much to be pleased about, not least England’s ruthlessness in the last ten minutes in Pristina, but for long stretches of the game they appeared to be playing within themselves.
It doesn’t look good on them. This England side is only at its best when it’s at full pelt. Sloppiness crept in against Kosovo for no other reason than England’s understandable disinclination to move through the gears.
Kosovo and their fans welcomed England warmly to Pristina, a gesture that ensured that the away game that followed the disgrace in Sofia would be a rather more edifying affair.
Unfortunately for the hosts they were accommodating on the pitch too. With half an hour gone and the visitors labouring, a pass into the feet of the excellent Harry Winks was controlled – sort of – into space just outside the penalty area.
The gaping hole that opened up will have displeased Kosovo coach Bernard Challandes; Winks applied a cute finish to score for England for the first time.Embed from Getty Images
From there England coasted for a while. A 1-0 lead in Pristina somehow felt safer than the 5-1 advantage Kosovo cut down to size at St Mary’s in September and England kept the home team at arm’s length.
England’s second goal arrived in the 80th minute and was a milestone for the captain. Stealing in at the far post, a closely-marked Harry Kane swept in a dropping, spinning ball past Arijanet Muric and into the net.
Kane scored in all eight qualifiers. He was the first England player to do so.
The third was deservedly scored by Marcus Rashford, who came on as a second half substitute and injected energy and movement that England had struggled for before his introduction.
The Manchester United forward has clearly regained his confidence on the back of a very impressive goalscoring run for club and country, and his strike for 3-0 oozed swagger.
Raheem Sterling’s pass was perfectly timed and expertly weighted, finding Rashford just inside the box at the other end of a beautiful one-two. Rashford took it first time, finding the far bottom corner with a deadly finish.
In stoppage time England made it 4-0 with Mason Mount’s first senior international goal in his sixth appearance. After having a goal disallowed against Montenegro it was gratifying to see him get off the mark in the next match.Embed from Getty Images
England’s win was deserved – most 4-0 wins are – but the performance was solid rather than spectacular.
They ended their Group A campaign with three consecutive clean sheets and this one was less shaky than the one in a 7-0 win three days earlier, yet the defence appeared capable of causing a problem for themselves.
Ben Chilwell, Tyrone Mings, Harry Maguire and Trent Alexander-Arnold all made individual errors in the game, none punished and none especially concerning.
Mings was guilty of a slightly casual first half in his second game for the national team but improved significantly in a more switched-on second 45.
His positioning was Chilwell’s safety net and his passing was crisper and cleaner than it had been before the break. In terms of all-round quality he eclipsed his more celebrated defensive partner in the second period.
England’s centre back pairing is a puzzle manager Gareth Southgate must solve between now and June. Mings has made a good case for himself alongside Maguire but the spot isn’t his yet. Fikayo Tomori made his debut off the bench in Pristina.
The midfield’s quality will remain in question until it’s rinsed clean by superior opponents next summer but its staffing is beginning to take shape.
Harry Winks and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain put in two good performances apiece in this international window and both must surely have pecked themselves to somewhere near the top of the order.Embed from Getty Images
The immediate question for Southgate is whether Ross Barkley – absent from the squad for Montenegro and Kosovo – justifies selection ahead of Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Further back, Declan Rice is vulnerable on this evidence. Jordan Henderson will start the first game for England next summer simply because he has become a vital component both on the ball and in terms of character and attitude.
Either the Liverpool captain or Tottenham Hotspur’s Winks would be asked to sit, should they both be picked in a midfield with Oxlade-Chamberlain. Give or take the possibility of Mount grabbing a place, that’s the group Southgate will choose from in June.
England will play all three Group D matches at Wembley by virtue of qualifying automatically and being a host nation for the sprawling EURO 2020 competition.
They won the group by six clear points in the end, winning seven and losing one of their eight qualifiers.
With 37 goals and a goal difference of +31, England’s ability to qualify comfortably belies historical difficulties at this stage.
We take it for granted now and we shouldn’t. Brushing off this group like it was nothing proves that England have a very promising squad indeed. The challenge now is to convert that into silverware.
There’s little evidence to suggest England have pushed on significantly from last summer’s FIFA World Cup, the semi-final exit in particular.
But there is reason to be hopeful, and this England, finally, feels like one with hope at its heart.