Euro 2020 Qualifiers: England vs Montenegro

by | Nov 14, 2019

How appropriate, that the England men’s team’s thousandth match should have come about with such rancour in the background. In football, as in every other walk of life, there’s high partisanship in the air, and there’s anger just about everywhere. It feels as though we’re hurtling towards a collective nervous breakdown. If playing Scotland in 1870 was about tape instead of crossbars and long stockings, then playing Montenegro in 2019 is about “beef” from a club match spilling over into something unpleasant. England went into the match missing their best striker as a result of it all.

Not that it made much of a difference, because Montenegro offered a defence made of twigs and moss. They offered the vaguest suggestion of a defence. And there isn’t really any way of sugar-coating that. TheyBut this probably shouldn’t detract from the quality of England’s performance. Every single player put in a first half performance of supreme cohesion, professionalism and quality. One of football’s great truisms is that you can only beat what’s in front of you, and even if what is in front of you is a paper bag full of owl feathers, you still have to negotiate those owl feathers.

When Kosovo did go on the offensive, they did so in a manner which only indicated indiscipline. With twelve minutes to play of the first half, Vesovic snapped at Marcus Rashford’s heels, then seemed to kick at the back of his leg, and then seemed to come very close to head-butting him. Rashford’s evasive action spared us all the sound of two halves of a coconut being banged together, but it may also have spared Vesovic a red card. He was extremely lucky to stay on the pitch.

Harry Kane, who must surely have been sincerely looking forward to a few days which he could take his mind the slough of despond that Tottenham Hotspur have become over the last year or so, chipped in with a first half hat-trick, playing like a dog off the leash. But every single played put in a shift, even occasional slapstick merchant Jordan Pickford, who flung himself across goal to claw out a header from Simic. Marcus Rashford was a slippery as an eel. The movement was excellent, and the passing imaginative. Five up without reply by half-time, the second half had pretty much the atmosphere of a school summer fete. An own goal fresh from the training ground of the Benny Hill Academy of Defending, shanked off the underside of his own crossbar by Sofranac, added a sixth, just as the atmosphere inside Wembley seemed to be deflating a little.

But then, the question of how good England actually are kind of feels valid, and should be answered. It might be considered that the games against the Netherlands and Switzerland came under uniquely trying circumstances. An all-English Champions League final had taken place just days, and both went to extra-time. In ninety minutes, they’re unbeaten since losing at home to Spain in September of last year. There remains the possibility that England will continue to be perceived as flat-track bullies, but we should also remember that they’ve already also beaten Croatia home and away in this qualification round of matches, which recovers something, following the disappointment of losing to them in the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup finals.

Tonight’s performance hasn’t been a one-off, either. In amongst the aftermath of the racism in Sofia and UEFA’s utterly pathetic treatment, it has become almost entirely forgotten that the team put in an extremely accomplished performance that night, scoring six without reply. Losing in the Nations League had cast something of a pall over their summer, with defeats against the Netherlands and Switzerland making up two of three defeats in five matches, with the other being their recent loss in Prague. With a group being shared between London and Glasgow and both the semi-finals and the final being played at Wembley, they’re the second favourites to win the tournament behind France, and it’s difficult to argue too much with that assessment.

There was even time for a good news story to crown it all off, when Tammy Abraham poked the ball in from close range to score England’s seventh goal. It was a delightful moment for a player who has been a revelation over the last year and a half or so, and who is maturing into an outstanding young striker.  But this was another convincing performance from England, their second in a row, and all of this at the end of a difficult few days. Gareth Southgate hung England’s dirty washing out in the full gaze of the general public and the glare of the media this evening, and it says something for the calibre of their players that they could just take to the pitch and put in such a performance, after the week they’ve had.