England picked up three more points in their pursuit of Euro 2020 qualification as they beat Bulgaria 4-0.
The Three Lions started off with a slow tempo, having been taken aback by the Bulgarians back five shape as well as their positive mentality. The Bulgarians never felt like a real danger as long as England took themselves seriously, but there appeared to be a chance that, at first anyway, Gareth Southgate’s men looked like having another one of “those days.”
So Bulgaria had a few raids forward and half-threatened, and in defence they managed to stifle England. The midfield wasn’t functioning and the full-backs offered little as the visitor’s back five allowed them to cover the width of their box and thus shut out any opposing incursions. So how did the Three Lions come through with a win, let alone a 4-0 hammering?
After all, we’ve seen at the World Cup that Gareth Southgate’s England are a supreme team in transition – their pace and movement in space makes them deadly against sides that push forward on them. But Bulgaria didn’t do that, they sat back and broke themselves, and England have shown they can struggle against sides that do that, especially as they lack (or rather, they haven’t brought through) a creative midfielder to thread killer passes and work his side into glorious positions.
Of course, England made light of that weakness against Bulgaria because we saw the perhaps the confirmation of what is now England’s strongest unit: their front three. England’s attack has often involved the same people: Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling are mainstays and despite the quality of Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford tends to be preferred as the third man.
But whilst Kane has been oozing class at all levels for forever now, and Rashford and Sterling have shone in fits and starts; the three of them have never really looked like a cohesive attacking unit, more like three talented individuals who can make it work (England looked most cohesive in a diamond formation with Rashford and Sterling as wide-forwards).
Now, however? With Pep Guardiola having helped Raheem Sterling make the most of his absolutely obscene talents and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer lifting Marcus Rashford’s mood if not his form, things have clicked. Harry Kane’s growth from a goalscoring predator to something like The English Ibrahimovic has proved to be the final piece of the puzzle.
They’re not just a transition team now, with Kane dropping deep and pinging long passes in behind for pace merchants Sterling and Rashford to run down – they showed at Wembley that they can break down deep blocks. How? With pace and pressing, but pace and pressing properly applied by players whose skill-sets are becoming perfect.
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In the first-half with everyone looking sluggish, Raheem Sterling was fizzing about the field like he was wearing the sky blue of Manchester City. Sterling’s defensive instincts are now so sharp that he was able to close down on a sloppy pass from Bulgarian goalkeeper Plamen Iliev, skin the Bulgarian left-back and then get his head up to lay the ball on for a Kane finish (Kane’s backwards movement to open up the pass from Sterling shows how they really understand each other).
1-0 after a slow performance, but there always existed the chance that things could wrong. The forwards had bailed England out once, however, and in the second half they set about doing it again. Marcus Rashford began the second period playing much wider than before, and this gave him the room he needed to start driving at the Bulgarian defence rather than being stifled by their deep block.
Rashford with momentum on his side is a difficult thing to contain, and when he started wide and deep inside his own half he looked up and with space to run he just flew at the Bulgarians, running from inside his own half straight into the Bulgarian box he then cut back onto his shooting foot so sharply that poor Nikolay Bodurov, sliding to block a cross, ended up careening into Rashford’s legs and conceding a penalty. Harry Kane scored it (because of course he did) and suddenly England were 2-0 ahead with just five minutes played in the half.
ulgaria’s will had been broken down by the pace, pressing and precision of England’s excellent front three and now The Three Lions roared to life. Suddenly the football was electric, the ball was zipping all around the field and the passing was short and sharp. Still the attacking trio led the way, and all three of them combined brilliantly for the third goal.
Kane pressed a Bulgarian outlet pass and the ball ricocheted to Marcus Rashford who once again drove forward at the Bulgarian defence. This time Harry Kane made a run outside him but as he did that the fear of Rashford’s pace saw the Bulgarian defence collapse in to block his route to goal, so Rashford fed the ball out wide to Kane and England’s captain then squared the ball for Raheem Sterling who had made a supreme run into the back-post area, leaving him with a simple finish for 3-0.
They later scored a fourth goal, with Kane winning and converting a penalty. And Rashford almost added a fifth after a gorgeous one-two with Ross Barkley. Ultimately it finished 4-0 and the story of England’s game was that, yes, their midfield isn’t the best – but they have a solid enough defence (though maybe not with the two full-backs that played today) and their attack is as well-rounded and balanced as any other front three in international football.
Are there bigger and better names on the international attack scene? Sure. Do any of them mesh with each other as well as England’s do? And are they are versatile as England’s trio, capable of rinsing anyone on the break but also breaking down obdurate defences? Don’t bet on it. With Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling; England will always have a chance. That front three is for real.