March 23, 2019
Three perfect touches at the end of 25.The opening goal of a room temperature qualifier at a fidgety Wembley might not be the kind of moment that international mini-eras are built around.
But England’s opener here,at the end of a move involving 10 outfield players,was special for various reasons.Not least as confirmation that Gareth Southgate is able to draw new elements and new rhythms from his team.So many England managers have stuck to a script,grown fat on the job.Sven-Göran Eriksson sat scratching his chin watching his England team play the same flat 4-4-2 formation through three successive tournaments.
This,though,was something else.Raheem Sterling will take the headlines after a hat-trick and a fine performance in England’s 5-0 victory.But the key thing at Wembley was the way it felt,the way it flowed.In the space of nine months Southgate has taken a cussed,well-grooved World Cup semi-finalist team and remade it into some other,more fluid substance.
England will be more diffident against better opponents.There is no need to say they are world beaters just yet.But the fact remains,this was light.This was full of easy attacking grace,not just the usual bursts and waves.This was,above all,fun.
That opening goal was made by a wonderfully simple piece of interplay by all three members of Southgate’s newly minted forward line.First Harry Kane dropped deep,turned and played a dream of a pass inside Filip Novak,with just enough fade to take it out into Jadon Sancho’s run.
It was a classical combination,the kind of thing you might find in Charles Hughes book of Soccer Skills,the dreaded FA manual with its chapters on lofted passes and long throws,but a book that also contains some fine little one-touch attacking moves.
Sancho crossed hard and low first time, the right option executed with total clarity.At the far post Sterling had read the move and finished as Jiri Pavelka staggered across his goal.Sancho stopped and punched the air at a lovely little piece of maths,an equilateral triangle of a goal born out of controlled precision against a deep-set defence.
And whatever happens to this team from here,Sancho,Sterling and Kane felt like a significant forward line.Most obviously,it is a delicious blend of skills.Kane is a disarmingly sophisticated player,a fine passer with a yen for dropping deep and a flickering fizzing picture of those moving shapes around him,an heir to players such as Marco van Basten (a comparison that will irritate some simply because Kane is Kane).
Sancho brings ice-cold certainty on that final pass.He is a dribbler without flash or gaudy stepovers.It all feels very controlled,a quicksilver dance across the ball and he’s gone.
Sterling just looked a fearsomely good footballer here,head up,always seeking a sliver of space,and with five goals now in his last three games for England.
All three attackers tessellated quite naturally for England,who have a full hand of riches here. Marcus Rashford will come back. Callum Hudson-Odoi made a late debut,Dele Alli,still only 22 himself,offers a different kind of threat across that front line.
There will be no apologies,by the way,for enjoying it.Since the age of the alpha centre-forwards,when Les Ferdinand,Alan Shearer and the rest seemed to come raining from the skies it has been slim pickings at times, with assorted fill-ins alongside a single goalscoring big dog, the unbroken lineage of Lineker-Shearer-Owen-Rooney-Kane. This is something new, an attack that comes from all angles, which has other shapes, other possibilities.
They started slowly. Southgate went with a double bolt in midfield, the muscular shuttling presence of Jordan Henderson adding variation to the shuttling muscular presence of Eric Dier. Wembley was close to full, with just a few open patches of red plastic under that cantilevered grey steel roof.
The migrainous band was back too, trawling through its repertoire of disconnected thuds and parps. And for a while it seemed the Czechs had come to play. Jaroslav Silhavy sent his team out in a deep-set 4-4-2. England struggled to find any space.
The opening goal settled them. Before long the ball was oozing around that forward line. In one rapid segment we saw all their different qualities. Sancho nipped inside a defender. Sterling spun on the ball. Ross Barkley, on as an early sub, made a good run off the back of the defence, and Alli found him with a beautiful lofted pass. It felt like a series of party pieces, a Wembley dance-off.
The second goal was another good moment for Sterling, who was blocked off bursting through two defenders. Kane smacked the penalty past Pavelka, his 21st goal in his 36th game. Sterling added a third with a fine finish on the hour, then sealed a deserved hat-trick with a deflected shot.
Southgate has clearly worked long and hard on adding those attacking gears. He will be delighted with the combinations here; and with a sense by the end of something else taking shape, an England team speaking to itself with rare clarity.