England maintained their winning start to the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign with a comfortable victory over Albania in Tirana.
Albania provided more of a challenge than hapless San Marino in England’s opening 5-0 win at Wembley but once they had survived an early scare when Myrto Uzuni missed a great chance for the side ranked 66th in the world, this was routine for Gareth Southgate’s side.
England captain Harry Kane lifted the mediocrity of an attritional first half on a slow surface when he scored his 33rd goal for his country, a superbly guided diving header from Luke Shaw’s cross seven minutes before the interval.
This set the platform for a more positive second-half display, Mason Mount adding a composed second in the 63rd minute after sustained England pressure saw Phil Foden’s effort turned on to the post by Albania keeper Etrit Berisha and Kane lifting a close-range shot over the top.
England stretched their unbeaten run in World Cup qualifiers to 23 games but now face their sternest test so far in this campaign as Poland and their master marksman Robert Lewandowski come to Wembley on Wednesday (19:45 BST).
Kane’s class lifts England
Kane had been going through something of a drought by his own standards. His previous England goal came 500 days ago, in a Euro 2020 qualifier against Kosovo, and his header in Tirana ended a run of 496 minutes without scoring.
Kane’s class, however, remains permanent so it was no surprise that he was the man to break the deadlock after England had struggled to break down a resilient Albania defence, the beneficiary of a superb left-flank delivery from Shaw.
It was also a good moment for the recalled Shaw, whose impressive recent form for Manchester United merited his inclusion.
Southgate may well have his ideal Euro 2020 starting line-up fixed in his mind but Shaw, who has assisted goals in his last three England starts, is emerging as a genuine rival to Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell.
Mount’s cool finish from Kane’s pass after Raheem Sterling intercepted Berat Djimsiti’s pass was another illustration of his growing stature and Chelsea’s rising star must surely be a certain starter when England open their Euro 2020 finals campaign against Croatia at Wembley on 13 June.
England had the odd anxious moment in defence, especially when Uzuni blazed over with only keeper Nick Pope to beat and the scoreline goalless, but they were largely untroubled.
The more accurate measure of where England’s current rate of progress stands will come when they face the world-class talent of Bayern Munich’s Lewandowski.
Southgate’s formation taking shape
Southgate’s decision to select two defensively-minded midfield men once more in Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips was another strong indicator that this will be his preferred formation at the Euros this summer.
It is a game plan which has looked stodgy on occasions, particularly in two Uefa Nations League games against Denmark, a goalless draw in Copenhagen and a defeat at Wembley, and leaves Southgate open to accusations of over-caution.
Southgate’s single-minded approach means he will not worry about outside noise if he is convinced this is the right way to go. The proof, as ever, will come with results before and during the summer’s delayed Euro 2020 showpiece.
One factor in Southgate’s plans will be the fitness of Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson.
He is recovering following groin surgery and while Liverpool are hopeful he will return before the end of the season, this is by no means guaranteed.
If he is fit, it would appear he will start alongside Rice in that opener against Croatia.
Phillips was pushed forward into a more advanced position in the second half but this now seems to be emerging as Southgate’s favoured strategy.
The debate continues around England’s goalkeeping position with Everton’s Jordan Pickford out injured but he has been Southgate’s favoured keeper for some time so it still seems to be his position to lose if he is fit.
Southgate will have learned little about Burnley keeper Nick Pope other than what he already knows and what he has seen in England’s training camp because he has had nothing to do against either San Marino or Albania.
He may have more to do when Lewandowski gets him in his sights at Wembley.
This England performance, ultimately, was efficient as opposed to spectacular but Southgate can be satisfied with six points, although anything less would have prompted serious questions.
This can be filed under “job done” and now it is on to Poland on Wednesday.
Six in a row – the best of the stats
- England have now won each of their past six World Cup qualifying matches, their best run since 10 straight wins between 2005 and 2009.
- Four Manchester City players started against Albania (Kyle Walker, Phil Foden, John Stones and Raheem Sterling), the most number of players from a single side to start for England since June 2019, when four Spurs players did so against Switzerland (Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier and Danny Rose).
- Harry Kane has now scored at 17 different stadiums while playing for England; with only Michael Owen (25) and Wayne Rooney (27) doing so in more different venues.
- Under Gareth Southgate, Harry Kane (28) has scored at least 16 more goals for England than any other player (Sterling, 12).
- In the 20 international caps Kane has earned in away matches for England, he has had a direct hand in 22 goals, scoring 13 times and delivering nine assists.
- Nick Pope is the first England goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet in each of his first six England appearances.
At the same time as England face Poland at Wembley on Wednesday (19:45 BST), Albania are away to San Marino.
- 4HysajBooked at 79mins
- 14LaciSubstituted forRamadaniat 89′minutes
- 7BareBooked at 21minsSubstituted forMemushajat 71′minutes
- 2MemollaSubstituted forGjasulaat 59′minutesBooked at 89mins
- 16CikalleshiSubstituted forManajat 59′minutes
- 17BrojaSubstituted forLenjaniat 59′minutes
- 2WalkerBooked at 69mins
- 8PhillipsSubstituted forWard-Prowseat 71′minutes
- 9KaneBooked at 73mins
- 7FodenSubstituted forLingardat 81′minutes
- Orel Grinfeld
Match ends, Albania 0, England 2.
Second Half ends, Albania 0, England 2.
Offside, Albania. Myrto Uzuni tries a through ball, but Rey Manaj is caught offside.
Hand ball by Jesse Lingard (England).
Foul by John Stones (England).
Rey Manaj (Albania) wins a free kick on the left wing.
Foul by Harry Maguire (England).
Berat Djimsiti (Albania) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Corner, England. Conceded by Ardian Ismajli.
Attempt blocked. Harry Kane (England) right footed shot from the left side of the box is blocked. Assisted by Kyle Walker.
Klaus Gjasula (Albania) is shown the yellow card for a bad foul.
Mason Mount (England) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Klaus Gjasula (Albania).
Substitution, Albania. Ylber Ramadani replaces Qazim Laci.
Foul by James Ward-Prowse (England).
Ledian Memushaj (Albania) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Kyle Walker (England).
Qazim Laci (Albania) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Substitution, England. Jesse Lingard replaces Phil Foden.
Elseid Hysaj (Albania) is shown the yellow card for a bad foul.