Football Features

How Raheem Sterling bailed out England’s midfield in eight-goal thriller vs fearless Kosovo

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:16, 10 September 2019

In a phenomenal end-to-end contest, England beat Kosovo 5-3.

This was an incredible game to watch. England were outplayed for large stretches by their plucky visitors, but their superior attacking ability always looked like making the difference and ultimately that’s exactly what it did. This was an absolutely thrilling match, however. And there were three main reasons for that. What were they?

Raheem To The Rescue

When teams don’t play well, they often look to a talisman to carry them forward. A leader to drag them out of the mire and into the sunlight. Many have always assumed that Harry Kane is that man for England. After all he’s beloved by everyone and wears the captain’s armband, so it makes sense. Except Kane is not England’s talisman, that honour belongs to Raheem Sterling.

This is not a role that has been handed to Sterling, either. He took it through a combination of hard work, tactical intelligence and sheer natural talent. His improvement under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City has given him so much confidence in his own ability that he has seized the role of talisman from Kane and, on the evidence of the Kosovo game, it’s just as well.

England were a broken mess of a team against Kosovo, but not Sterling. No, Raheem Sterling was fizzling with the kind of energy that could power and/or level a city. Check his shirt after the match and there would be way more than 3.6 roentgen on there because the no. 7 was downright thermonuclear at St. Mary’s.

Sterling picked up the ball and pretty much wherever he was on the field, he ran right at the Kosovans. He showed no fear and had utterly supreme belief in his ability. He waltzed through Kosovo’s midfield, juked and danced away from their defenders. He scored England’s equaliser with his head and then created the go-ahead goal with a nice pass into Kane. After an own goal made it 3-1, Sterling was at it again, laying on two goals in two minutes for Jadon Sancho and allowing England to finish the half 5-1 up.

One goal and three assists in an international game is downright ridiculous (and Kevin de Bruyne did the same yesterday in case you were wondering just how terrifyingly good Manchester City are) and the fact that he did it with basically no quality help from behind him sums up exactly why Raheem Sterling is England’s superhero, a one-man rescue act.

Fearless Kosovo

Part of the reason Sterling had to pull off a miracle display is that Kosovo absolutely shook the life out of England down on the South Coast. Their manager spoke before the game full of the kind of furious conviction that can be easy to mock but works absolute wonders on players who are just as committed. Kosovo sat second in the qualifying group (they were briefly top) with two wins and two draws so far. This was their first defeat yet in many ways it was their best performance.

Alright their defence was leaky as hell and despite his penalty saving heroics Aro Muric didn’t play all that well in the Kosovan goal, but this is literally their second-ever qualifying campaign (Russia 2018 was their first). They are not a major nation or even a minor nation, they are minnows yet they came to play England as equals, and thanks to some technical skill and the courage of their convictions they matched the Three Lions for the vast majority of the game.

The way they passed the ball through England and exposed the spaces around the full-backs, the way they interchanged passes and drove the ball up the field without ever resorting to agricultural tactics; these are not things you expect from such a fledgling footballing power. But with Bernard Challandes coaching the side and the likes of Valon Berisha and Vedat Muriqi leading the way on the field, Kosovo don’t attack like a fledgling football power.

They’re now third in the group, but they’re just one point off the Czech Republic and watching them dice up England you’d have the utmost confidence in Kosovo showing up at Euro 2020, and if they get there don’t be surprised if they can turn a few heads and upset a few favourites. They have technical skill and absolutely no fear, that’s a potent mix.

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England’s Midfield Misery

The reason England needed to be bailed out by Raheem Sterling, and the reason Kosovo had so much joy in attacking The Three Lions, was down to one unit of players. And no it wasn’t the defence, albeit Michael Keane disgraced himself with a backpass for Kosovo’s second goal and Harry Maguire did the same for the penalty that led to their third.

No, the big problem was the midfield. Obviously at first because they just make stupid passes. For Kosovo’s first goal, Ross Barkley can see that Michael Keane has no safe passing outlets and is about to be pressed ferociously yet he still passes him the ball.

It was a ludicrous decision, not quite matched by Declan Rice for Kosovo’s second goal albeit the West Ham man playing a square pass straight to a Kosovan player when England had numbers committed forward. And not wanting his midfield mates to feel left out, Jordan Henderson pitched in for Kosovo’s second as well; tracking back and laughably trying to head Vedad Muriqi’s cross away and then getting sent straight into the stands by Valon Berisha’s body feint.

The thing is, individual errors are things that can happen – albeit all three midfielders making one each during a game where England conceded three goals was deeply amusing – but the real problem, the one that must haunt Gareth Southgate at night, has to be the fact that England’s midfield can’t control a game to save their lives.

Everyone enjoyed the end-to-end nature of the game but it should have never come to that, because as soon as England went 5-1 up they should have put the clamps on the game and seen it out. The second half should have been a quiet affair with England’s midfield controlling the tempo of the game so that their attack didn’t have to keep trying to score goals to make the team feel comfortable.

But it wasn’t. You look at how Frenkie de Jong wields power for the Netherlands, or how any of Spain’s midfielders are so utterly capable of controlling the tempo of games, speeding it up when they have to and slowing it down when Spain need to take things down a notch, and you worry for England. France didn’t have either of their starting midfielders (Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté) yet had Corentin Tolisso, Moussa Sissoko and Blaise Matuidi run the show for both their games this break.

England have nothing like that, they have no one like that. Could Harry Winks make the difference? Perhaps. But right now England’s midfield is a massive, blatant, video-game-boss level of weakness that any halfway intelligent side will be able to exploit come bigger games.