Jadon Sancho’s England potency leaves Rashford looking over his shoulder
It was a night to savour the brilliance of Raheem Sterling, to thank Michael Keane and Kosovo for making life interesting and for Jadon Sancho to show Gareth Southgate will have forward options to envy when England enter the European Championship next summer. The Borussia Dortmund winger seized the moment he had begged for.
Southgate had suggested the 19-year-old’s gifts go under the radar in England as they light up the Bundesliga on a regular basis and not the Premier League. That view must be revised after his impact on a chaotic evening in Southampton. This was Sterling’s night, with the Manchester City forward delivering another supreme show of devastating creativity, but Sancho drew inspiration from his former club colleague. “He was in my room at 10.30 last night begging me to square one,” Sterling revealed afterwards. He squared two to help Sancho – at 19 years and 169 days – become the youngest player to score more than once in a game for England since Wayne Rooney against Croatia in 2004. The standing ovation he received when replaced by Marcus Rashford late on confirmed he flies under no one’s radar in England any more. Here he brought a potency to the England attack that the Manchester United forward, for all his qualities, is yet to translate on to the international stage. The contest between the two should make for compelling viewing in the build-up to Euro 2020.
Southgate ranked Rashford, Sterling and Harry Kane among the finest forward lines in international football following the defeat of Bulgaria on Saturday, when their varying attributes again coalesced into a potent unit. But with only seven matches remaining before having to name his squad for the Euros – it is probably now safe to say England will be present – the strongest opponent in a weak group was an ideal opportunity to test the resources at his disposal.
“It is in no way a reflection of how people played at the weekend,” the England manager explained before kick-off. “Jadon Sancho is in to freshen up the team. We have good players to come in and it’s a chance in the wide areas to refresh the group. His ability one against one to beat players [and] his decision making is excellent. His number of goals and assists at Dortmund speaks for itself.” Speaks loudly, in fact. No player in Europe’s top five leagues has produced more assists in league football than Sancho since the start of last season. His total of 17 includes four in five appearances for Borussia Dortmund this term. As well as three goals.
There was a confidence and composure about the teenager throughout his eighth international and third competitive England start. He immediately looked a natural fit in a settled forward line and took up positions that Southgate wants to see Rashford occupy more regularly; that is less time dropping deep in search of possession and more looking to get in behind defenders with pace that, allied to Sterling’s speed and skill on the opposite flank, enabled the hosts to recover convincingly from Keane’s first-minute aberration. Sancho would also drift centrally in close support of Kane at times as England exhausted the Kosovo defence with their movement and clinical finishing.
It took a while for a rapport to build between the former Watford academy graduate and Trent Alexander-Arnold on what could be a hugely productive right flank for England. Twice the Liverpool right-back failed to pick out a Sancho run into space in the first half but with Jordan Henderson quick to find the winger he did not have to wait long to showcase the ability to burst past defenders and pick the right pass having done so. Florent Hadergjonaj, the poor Kosovan left back, was in a state of torment long before Sancho scored his first international goal on the stroke of half-time. Receiving Sterling’s inch-perfect pass across the penalty area, the 19-year-old again deceived Hadergjonaj before firing low under goalkeeper Arijanet Muric. The immaculate control and quick change of feet in possession prior to converting were hallmarks of Sancho’s entire performance. His willingness to help defensively did not go unnoticed too, and he intercepted several breaks by Kosovo when sprinting back into midfield.
Sancho won the corner that led to Keane’s reprieve and Sterling’s equaliser. He forced England’s third by taking the ball to the byline, outfoxing Hadergjonaj and driving in a low cross that Muric inexplicably left and Mergim Vojvoda turned into his own net. The fact it was an own goal and a Kosovan player was flat on the ground appealing for treatment at the time barely registered with Sancho as he celebrated with a few fist-pumps.
He looked more sheepish after scoring his second goal. Once again it was made by the mesmerising and unselfish feet of Sterling and Sancho was left with a simple task to score into an empty goal with Muric stranded. Sterling had fulfilled his promise and Southgate’s options in attack, with Callum Hudson-Odoi still to recover from injury, look increasingly formidable.