The problem with hard work is that talent and inspiration will often trump it in the end. So it was that Ukraine left Wembley with nothing but the rest of Europe’s enduring sympathy. It’s a miracle that this team in yellow and blue are still functioning at all. To ask them to compete at the level at which they would hope to is probably a step too far.
They didn’t manage a shot on target here against England. Their discipline, energy and commitment to the task kept them in the game for half an hour but once England scored they were in real trouble. When Gareth Southgate’s team did so again almost immediately, they were gone from the contest.
England are making a bit of a habit of these wham-bam sequences and it’s a good one to develop. Manchester City tend to do it at club level and so, when at their best, do Liverpool. Goals arrive in sequence as momentum builds. As such tight games can be won in a matter of minutes.
At the World Cup in Qatar England were pedestrian for an hour against Iran and then scored three in ten minutes before half-time. Against Wales it was two in two minutes and against Senegal it was two in six, again just before half-time.
Such bursts can turn tricky games in something altogether more comfortable and although England were never ever in any trouble at Wembley, their two goals, from Harry Kane and Bukayo Saka, allowed them to stroll through the second half of a game that ultimately saw them take a big stride towards Euro 2024 qualification already.
Ukraine left Wembley with Europe’s sympathy but England recorded a comfortable victory
England’s two goals in a four minute allowed the Three Lions to stroll through the second half
Gareth Southgate’s side appear to be evolving in the early stages of Euro 2024 qualifying
After the disappointment of their World Cup exit and the subsequent fuss about Southgate’s future, this return to international football felt important. Anything less than four points would have jarred a little. As it is, victories in Italy and now back at home have left them in good shape and England’s players will return to their clubs with the feeling that they are part of an international team that continues to evolve.
If we briefly look back to a time before the World Cup and to the summer of 2021 and the European Championships, we can see how that has happened. Back then Jude Bellingham and indeed Saka, for example, were young talents of promise. Now they are fixtures in this team. Jordan Pickford is a better, more reliable goalkeeper while Declan Rice has developed enough to stand on the brink of a move to a big club this summer, very possibly Arsenal.
For the first time perhaps even in his six-and-a-half year tenure, Southgate has a team that is starting to almost pick itself and that will be increasingly useful as England work towards a tournament in Germany in the summer of next year that they will feel present an opportunity to win.
There is a little depth to this England squad, too. Not in all areas. Not for example at centre back where Southgate has lost faith in the likes of Conor Coady and Tyrone Mings as back up to John Stones and Harry Maguire. But there are some options at full-back and further forward, especially in wide positions. With Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford absent with injuries, they have been well covered. Jack Grealish played on the left in Naples and when Phil Foden was taken ill this weekend, James Maddison stepped in to that position for this one. Southgate still has the Manchester United player Jadon Sancho to consider also.
Maddison didn’t lack motivation here and played well enough. Saka was the stand out on the other flank, though. All the beauty in Kane’s goal was to be found in Saka’s cross. Saka’s goal, meanwhile, was fabulously executed but had its own root in the touch and strength first exhibited to control the ball in a right situation and then turn away from an opponent who was trying to pull him back.
This was only Ukraine and it was not an exciting game. England were actually rather poor for half an hour and the second half featured a Mexican wave and a good number of paper aeroplanes drifting down from the upper tiers. Neither of those things ever indicate an overload of excitement on the field.
Bukayao Saka was England’s standout with the winger scoring and registering an assist
James Maddison’s appearance highlighted England’s depth in attacking areas of the pitch
England missed an opportunity by giving Ivan Toney just ten minutes for his debut
Could we, meanwhile, have seen Ivan Toney given a little longer than ten minutes for his debut at the end of the game? Yes, we could. Southgate appeared to miss an opportunity there.
But the England manager is paid to win football matches and he continues do that whilst ensuring some new blood begins to ooze towards the surface. This was, for example, a second appearance for Conor Gallagher in the last few days and he almost marked it with a goal, denied at close range by the goalkeeper with a couple of minutes left.
One obstacle that England will face in the immediate future is a lack of quality opposition. Their run of games in this group should not greatly challenge them from this point on while they have autumn friendlies pencilled in against Scotland and Australia.
But the last time England played at Wembley before this one, they were two down to Germany after 67 minutes last September and Southgate was considering whether to walk away after the World Cup. England scored three times in 12 minutes to turn that one round. A good habit, indeed.
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