England vs Czech Republic: Raheem Sterling sublime and four other things we learned as Gareth Southgate’s side canter to victory

A destructive England thrashed Czech Republic 5-0 at Wembley to open their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign without so much as a blink.

After a cagey opening quarter, Harry Kane spliced open the defence with a playmaker’s through-ball to Jadon Sancho before the 18-year-old zipped the ball across the face of goal with Raheem Sterling on-hand to slide in as we have already seen so many times this season.

In the dying moments of the first half, Sterling then jinked through the Czech box before being recklessly blocked off by both centre-backs, allowing Harry Kane to stretch the lead to two from the spot and set up the most routine of second halves.

Sterling added his second with a blind finish, having picked up the loose ball with his back to goal and curled past the keeper on his weaker foot, before completing his hat-trick with a kind deflection.

There were also debuts for Declan Rice and Callum Hudson-Odoi on a night of assured dominance for Southgate’s side.

Here’s five things we learned from the game.

Sterling the complete player

If there was ever a time England wondered where the goals would come from, they are now greedily inundated. In Harry Kane, one of the world’s most proven and incisive strikers, in Jadon Sancho, a player already showing a freescoring trait in the Bundesliga at such a tender age. But in Raheem Sterling England possess not only one of the most deadly finishers in modern football, but one of the game’s most complete players.

A combination of blistering speed, graceful footwork and the predatory nous of the archetypal poacher. At times, Sterling seems to be a bullet-quick striker, masquerading as a winger, with the desire to tear towards goal at every opportunity. The way in which he took his second goal, charging onto the loose ball in the box, pirouetting around the defender to curl the ball into the top corner on his weaker foot without so much of a glance upwards serving as the greatest evidence.

Yet every time Kane nodded down or held up, Sterling was there, milling between the front three, playing with freedom and maturity. That, in part, must be credited to Pep Guardiola, but the fact that the 25-year-old can so readily replicate his club football when playing for the national side is a testament to his own talents. 

England’s No 9 turned playmaker against Czech Republic (PA)

Kane’s evolving talents

Even at just 25, Harry Kane is showing the maturity to develop facets in his game. Never a player who has overtly relied on speed, rendered unnecessary by having such whirring wingers either side, England’s No 9 shows a greater inkling to drop deeper towards midfield, involving himself in the game, getting ball to feet and on the floor rather than engaging in a battle of physicality with the Czech Republic’s rugged centre-backs.

After just 15 minutes, with Sterling arcing in off the left wing, Kane dropped nearer to the centre circle, and with a quick swivel chipped a cute ball over the top. When England finally cracked open the Czech’s cagey defence, it was he who turned playmaker to find Sancho in space, who in turn set up Sterling for the opener.

From thereon, Kane played Tomas Kalas for a fiddle, dragging the centre-back with him on each dally deep. Throughout the game, Kane was as able to linger on the last man, hold up the ball and beat the last defender to a header, as drop into an effectively false nine position. A role which infinitely complements the two lieutenants in England’s attacking trio and in doing so, there is an easy diversity to England that typifies the freedom this side can play with. 

No need for both Dier and Henderson

There’s such an easy fluidity to Gareth Southgate’s side that playing both Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson against Czech Republic seemed at first to add an unwelcome rigidity. The game opened in a cagey fashion, with England’s opponents happy to sit back and hope to spring a counter, leaving the space stifled and England in need of players to pull away defenders and create space. 

Once Dier was substituted early on due to a hip injury and Ross Barkley was introduced in his place, there was an added dynamism to Southgate’s midfield. Henderson anchored into his more comfortable sweeper role at the base of midfield, allowing Barkley and Dele Alli to burst forward and create pockets of space and, with that, suddenly Sterling and Sancho were unleashed from either touchline.

Repeatedly, England carved in from the byline, glided into open grass on the counter-attack, space suddenly as welcome as daylight. In this 4-3-3 formation, England are set-up to play to attack, their strength and tune. In a game where the opposition are set up in such a nature, the need to reinforce the midfield seems an unwelcome burden. 

Henderson thrived as the solo anchor in England’s midfield (Getty)

Sancho, unrefined but unmistakeably gifted

Harry Kane highlighted the nerveless flair of England’s youth breaking through into the squad earlier this week, and while it should come as no surprise that Jadon Sancho would settle seamlessly into this England side, there’s still an aura to the 18-year-old in the way he handled his first start in the international shirt in such measured, almost blasé, fashion. 

It wasn’t a showstopping performance. The mistakes were visible, even if on the night negligible. At times, he lingered on the ball a fraction too long allowing Filip Novak to recover, in others he failed to pick the final ball, not quite in chemistry with the runners in front of him. 

But then there were the mesmerising feints, the jinking acceleration and velcro touch, the unmistakable jaunts of skill. A player who, while still in the embryonic stages of his career, already possesses the armoury to dismantle any defence. 

And, at the first moment Sancho was able to hare into space behind Novak, who had otherwise kept him ably contained, the diminutive winger displayed a devastating clinical edge, blurring towards the byline and fizzing a ball across the face of goal for Raheem Sterling to slide in England’s opener. A play still unrefined but of irresistible ilk and potential. 

Jadon Sancho made his first start for the national side (AFP/Getty)

A sure defence, but one which can be improved

They rarely looked threatened, only a few blinks out of place. There was the deflected free-kick early on in the second half that darted towards Jordan Pickford’s goal, there were the corners which squirmed through all manner of legs to provide a rare scare. But, in truth, England never looked threatened, after the first goal, the result always secure.

Yet there is something disjointed about this makeshift defence. Harry Maguire, adept yet occasionally lumbering, Michael Keane, composed but providing little in the way of enthusiasm. In an England team thriving on self-expression, it can’t be helped to think how happily reinforced it will be with the return of John Stones and Joe Gomez, as well as Trent Alexander-Arnold, a player already proven as ready to surpass the occasionally erratic Kyle Walker. When those youthful additions to the squad bring the verve to match the attacking trio, England look every bit the part to enter Euro 2020 as favourites.

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