One of the great events in Kosovo’s brief sporting history, a satisfactory outcome for England, but not exactly one of the great games.
Gareth Southgate’s changes brought a 4-0 win in Pristina and the successful confirmation of a top-seed spot in Euro 2020 – not to mention first international goals for Harry Winks and Mason Mount – but not much more guidance as to what his best team actually is.
England didn’t quite respond to the hugely warm welcome they got in Kosovo with a rousing performance, but still did the job.
From that perspective, and even allowing for the uneven football, this was an uplifting event to be present at.
Kosovo’s deep gratitude to Britain for the contribution to the area’s 1999 conflict – and how they see the country as their saviours – was present in every part of the evening. There were welcome banners everywhere, and the rendition of God Save The Queen saw the home crowd sing along, while holding up St George’s flags.
Many locals – and many ex-pats who specifically came back for the game – at one point never imagined such a fixture to be possible, so to specifically play England at a time when they properly find their feet as a footballing nation effectively made this their greatest fixture so far. It felt like a party, and something of a proper arrival, as they now prepare for play-offs they can look towards with optimism.
There were times when it seemed set up for a proper upset, but England just had too much quality. Raheem Sterling’s return to the side ensured that, especially as he set up both late goals.
And yet it was still another game that showed most of the next months are going to be about Southgate trying to figure out what fits best in midfield. A combination of Declan Rice and Winks doesn’t look like that.
For one, there was the obvious problem that they mostly ended up occupying the same space. It totally disrupted any kind of flow England had.
Rice and Winks did admittedly do different things from that space, mind.
It’s impossible to overlook the reality that Rice’s form has rather considerably dropped in the last few months, which is one reason he has largely dropped out of favour with England. This was more evidence of that.
Where he had earlier this year looked so assured on the ball, he here looked rigid and leaden, signposting where he was going with the ball before he actually went there. It led to one particularly bad pass out of defence that Kosovo almost capitalised on. There was always a threat from the boisterous home side, especially when they suddenly switched wings to burst holes in England’s backline. Both Atdhe Nuhia and captain Amir Rrahmani should have done better with headed opportunities that resulted from such breaks.
As in the match at Southampton, though, Kosovo’s impressive openness in attack was offset by a more damaging openness in defence. It was like they’d suffer sudden freezes at the back, which was exactly the case for the goal.
That moment, mind, was also a rare cases of Winks and Rice moving in the manner that you would presume Southgate actually wants.
Rice sat and initiated an attack with a fine pass, that found its way to Harry Kane. As the striker turned to move the ball on, Winks surged past and to the edge of the area, where he was well set to receive Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s own delivery.
The midfielder opened up the entire box with one touch, to then set himself up and slot the ball past Arijanet Muric.
If that touch initially looked a little lucky, Winks’s technique means he probably deserves the benefit of the doubt. He took the ball, and thereby took out the entire Kosovan defence.
England were still never fully comfortable, or convincing.
There were so many moments when Kosovo exposed their shape off the ball, and looked like bursting through.
It’s just their own shape off the ball wasn’t that cohesive either. It ensured Kane got his usual goal late on, before substitute Marcus Rashford continued his surge of form with another, and Mount completing the scoring.
The home supporters were among those warmly applauding.
A job done, but a greeting party still in full swing.