KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- England were fourth at the World Cup in 2018, third at the Nations League this year and are relying on a mixture of youth, experience and an unknown Factor X to go further in next year’s Euro, not least because the semis and final will be staged at Wembley.
Priority is to qualify and Gareth Southgate’s men moved ever closer by dismantling an ageing and frightened Bulgaria 4-0 at Wembley to hold top spot in Group A. On Tuesday they can push on by defeating Kosovo in Southampton.
Captain Harry Kane scored his second England hat-trick with the help of two penalties and created the other goal for man of the match Raheem Sterling. Bulgaria tested goalkeeper Jordan Pickford only twice.
Southgate was full of praise for “Harry and Raz” but also for his new generation led by substitutes Mason Mount and Jadon Sancho. He said: “The players who have come through from the under-21s are there because they deserve to be in. Like Mason Mount. His performances for Chelsea, in training this week and then when he went into the game show he’s a threat to the starting team.
“It’s hugely encouraging to know the best years for a lot of these lads are three or four or five years away. We have to get the balance right of keeping on winning matches while blood these young players at the right time. England fans should be hugely excited to see Mount and Sancho coming on.”
Southgate recalled England’s experience in the run-up to Russia last year to suggest that his new boys can playing important roles in the Euro finals.
He said: “Looking ahead to next summer we have genuine competition for places. There are four or five names you would expect right now to see on the team sheet but outside them it’s very difficult to call a lot of positions.
“Remember, at the start of the season before the World Cup players Pickford and Kieran had only played once or twice for us and Harry Maguire had not played at all. A lot can happen between now and next summer.”
Kane’s treble took him to 25 England goals, two more than Stan Mortensen and one ahead of World Cup winner Sir Geoff Hurst in England’s all-time scoring chart, while Wayne Rooney’s record of 53 goals looks eminently achievable.
Southgate said: “I can only talk glowingly about Harry’s mentality to want to be a top player. Selfish isn’t the right word because he’s actually a very unselfish player. He works so hard for the team and he’s more than happy to drop into areas to leave space for others and play passes into others.
“But, when he gets his moment, then he just has an outstanding mindset and, technically, he’s a top, top finisher.
“I go back to the fact that’s hours and hours of practice and if you talk to some of the other forwards in the squad, they would talk to you about how big an impression that has had on them and the way they practice when they go back to their clubs.
“Sometimes you can take part in finishing practices that can be a little bit half-hearted or not as focused as they might be – but he’s on it every single time. That’s where you get the transfer into the game.”
Southgate also praised Manchester City’s “outstanding” Sterling.
The manager said: “I didn’t think we made enough runs in behind their defence in the first galf but he was a constant threat and his willingness to work without the ball to go and press and win the ball back for the first goal set absolutely the right tone for the team.
“Two years ago when we were working with him he was still a dangerous player but he just didn’t have that same desire to get into those areas and that ruthlessness in front of goal or that mindset of disappointment when he doesn’t score.
“Now he’s reaping the personal gain of the goals and also the acknowledgement publicly that he should get.”
However Bulgaria coach Krasimir Balakov, one of their midfield heroes of a very different era in the 1990s, was not impressed by what he saw from his own present-day successors.
He said: “Before the game I said there was an enormous defence in the levels of the two teams. England, indeed, are an extremely good side and that is why we wanted to play compact football. The result was fair but all the four goals were down to our individual mistakes so I’m not happy with that. We have a lot of work ahead of us.
“Harry Kane is one of the best attackers in the world and the difference between him and today’s other great attackers is the added value is his work rate and what he does for his team-mates.”