It had been hard to draw too many conclusions from Euro 2020 Group A qualifying before Tuesday night, but there is now overwhelming evidence that yet another qualification procession will end in more major finals disappointment if England do not get their act together at the back.
This, of course, is not a concern that had not already been signposted after John Stones had gifted Holland a goal in the semi-finals of the Nations League in the summer.
The 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund ace was picked in the starting XI for the St Marys clash and proved his worth by scoring his first England goal, quickly followed by a second – both assisted by man of the moment Raheem Sterling – in the 5-3 victory.
England manager Gareth Southgate will have struggled to decide whether his glass was half-full or half-empty as he reflected on a thud and blunder night against Kosovo at St Marys.
First things first – everyone at Southampton enjoyed a thrilling Euro 2020 qualifier that led to a rousing ovation for both sides at the conclusion of Englands chaotic 5-3 victory.
And Southgate will have revelled in Englands magnificent attacking display, spearheaded by a world-class performance from Raheem Sterling, who scored once as well as setting up two goals for Jadon Sancho and another for Harry Kane.
Englands attacking trident tormented Kosovo after central defender Michael Keane presented them with a goal inside the first minute, passing unerringly to Valon Berisha with a clear run at goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
Sadly, however, there must be a misery-guts side to this story even though England are celebrating four wins from four Euro 2020 qualifiers and are cruising through Group A after scoring 19 goals in those games.
The bottom line is this – England have little or no chance of beating quality international sides if they defend as shoddily and carelessly as this, if they give possession away as cheaply as this and are as easy to get at as Kosovo made it look.
Kosovo are improving rapidly, entering this game on the back of a 15-game unbeaten run and with a victory over the Czech Republic that raised their hopes of being among the qualifiers next summer.
This is a slightly false rating given their ability but the fact they pulled England back from 5-1 to 5-3 in the second half and created an air of anxiety and expectation among the fans at either end of St Marys says everything about the flaws in Southgates side.
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England, defensively, were not good enough – nowhere near the standard that would be acceptable at the highest international level.
Yet while England’s march towards Euro 2020 continued with a fourth win from as many qualifiers, the pulsating 5-3 win against Kosovo left Southgate with plenty to ponder.
West Ham Uniteds Declan Rice gave the ball away badly for Berishas second while Manchester Uniteds Harry Maguire clumsily failed to clear before hauling down Vedat Muriqi, who scored from the spot.
Maguire made an horrendous meal of the most basic piece of work to make it a treble helping of dreadful defending by England and for all the flair and fantasy of their attacking play there is no hiding away from the fact this is a serious weakness.
Southgate himself pointed at other errors, such as the lack of basic tracking back, that also exposed England. This was hardly a night of unbridled joy for Englands manager. There is much to concern him.
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Imagine the likes of Belgium, France, Spain, Germany and a few others when faced with the sort of defending England produced against Kosovo?
The attackers who play for those countries would be licking their lips at the idea of facing this England defence at a major tournament.
England still have Manchester Citys John Stones to come back but he had a nightmare in the Uefa Nations League semi-final against the Netherlands while Liverpools Joe Gomez, the best option outside the current selections, is not getting regular games at club level.
Southgates first choice defenders have not proved reliable against international opposition of the highest quality – and produced no evidence here to suggest they will do so any time soon.
Kosovos ability to run through Englands midfield and get at that soft centre would also have concerned Southgate.
It may seem somewhat spoilsport to focus in on this negative after another important victory but to ignore it would be delusion. Southgate will not be letting it escape his attention.
A sell-out St Mary’s crowd bore witness to the most entertaining qualifier in many a year as Gareth Southgate’s men continued their march to Euro 2020 with an enthralling, if at times unconvincing, 5-3 victory on the south coast.
England Go 1-0 Down To Kosovo After Just 35 Seconds In Entertaining Euro Qualifier
For all the class and potency of Englands attack, their current defensive condition suggests they will need to rack up at least three goals against those teams mentioned previously to stand a chance of victory because there is no way they will not concede goals.
This task will not be as easy as it was here against a Kosovo side committed to an all-out attacking strategy that occasionally left them wide open at the back.
Jadon Sancho scores twice as England beat Kosovo 5-3 at St Marys
They have scored 14 goals in their three home games, more than any other nation in Euros qualifying so far.
And at the heart of it all was the brilliant Sterling, who produced a 45-minute performance against Kosovo that was simply on another level from anyone else.
The Three Lions maintained their 100% record in qualification for Euro 2020, but they had a few dicey moments in an open and entertaining encounter at St. Mary’s.
Sterling ended a barren 27-game sequence stretching back three years when he scored twice in Englands 3-2 win in Spain almost a year ago – now he is irreplaceable, a talent reaching full maturity.
Since that game in Spain he has played seven games, scoring six goals in Englands qualifying games so far and producing four assists.
He simply could not be stopped in the first 45 minutes and his partnership with Kane is now reaching telepathic proportions as he set up Englands captain for his 26th goal in 41 appearances, level with Bryan Robson and one behind David Platt.
Southgate wants England to cut out basic errors after Kosovo thriller
Sterling has been involved in 12 goals in his last eight England games, with eight goals and four assists. He and Kane have combined for six goals under Southgate, at least three times as many as any other duo.
Kanes performance contained a rare blemish when his second-half penalty was saved by Arijanet Muric, only his second miss in 10 attempts for England.
In the end it was not costly as Kosovos brave attempt at a miracle turnaround fell short and England can look at a Group A table with a flawless appearance.
But Englands display, particularly that occasionally shambolic defence, was not flawless and they will not come away unscathed if this is produced on a bigger stage.