England took to the slow pitch of Tirana and secured their second win of this World Cup qualifying campaign. Goals from Harry Kane and Mason Mount ensured that England now have two wins from two ahead of the game against their toughest group opponents, Poland, at Wembley on Wednesday.
This 2-0 victory over Albania took some time to get going but it was only natural for Kane to score and send the visitors on their way. The England captain had failed to find the net in his last six international matches and contributed only one assist, which is in stark contrast to his statistics for Tottenham Hotspur of 27 goals and 16 set-ups this season.
Kane is the type of player to take such a dry run in an England shirt as a personal affront and that was clear when he forced himself into a dominant position to stoop and head in a Luke Shaw cross in the 38th minute.
The goal that broke the deadlock was important for Gareth Southgate’s side who had found the first half-hour tough going. That was in no least down to the pitch at the Air Albania stadium.
The surface had been in the news prior to the game as it has been troublesome since the stadium opened in 2019 and required assistance from Dean Gilasbey, the Wales-based head of international management for ProPitch and a consultant for Uefa, during the past week and he carried out emergency work on the turf.
Emerging from the long grass, Kane was still able to do his damage. It was evident how the Spurs striker stuck to a more conventional No.10 position while getting fed with balls from Mount, Raheem Sterling and the full-backs. Kane did return the favour when he set-up Mount for his goal but the England captain will relish the creativity that is suddenly surrounding him with England.
Midfield still a mystery for Southgate
England went with Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips in midfield for this match, a duo which has not been considered in the constant preview of how Southgate will set up his team in the summer. Despite the defensive look of the pairing in the 4-2-3-1 system, England looked susceptible to the counter-attack and Albania should have taken the lead through Elseid Hysaj following a break in the first half.
Southgate made the point before kick-off that if England wanted to be considered as a top team, they had to dictate on these type of occasions and his selection did hint at front-foot football with Mount given a free role behind Kane and Phil Foden and Sterling either side of the Chelsea attacker.
Yet, in central midfield, which is the area where England are weakest, there remains questions as to who make up the strongest partnership. Jordan Henderson is in a fight to make the Euros due to injury so it appears to be a case of who will sit alongside Rice.
Mount could do that job if it’s a case of shoehorning him into the starting team against a deep-lying opponent but ideally he would be higher up the pitch as he was here. Southgate may have learned something in the way that England appeared more front-footed when James Ward-Prowse replaced Phillips on 71 minutes. There is still a decision to be made in midfield.
Shaw grasps his chance
Shaw’s last three starts for England have come across the course of six years but his delivery for Kane’s opener meant that he has assisted a goal in every one of them. This is a Shaw which is confident, creative, capable of defending one-on-one and, most importantly, fit. For a full-back who has been on the national radar for such a long time, it is quite remarkable that this was only his ninth England cap.
Shaw has been Manchester United’s stand-out player this season and Southgate will hope he now has two left-backs, in him and Ben Chilwell, who he can pin his faith in as he looks ahead to England’s Euro summer.
Whether he was behind Foden or Sterling on the left flank, Shaw was able to interchange and link-up well in Tirana. He was forthright when attacking and equally adept at manning the left-side of England’s all Manchester backline.
Southgate’s defence of Shaw and fellow United defender Harry Maguire alongside Manchester City duo John Stones and Kyle Walker had more than a Mancunian accent. The England manager may well have wanted to tap into the relationships between the centre-backs and full-backs that have been built up at club level, or Southgate may have just selected on form.
Either way, both United and City defences have had more good days than bad this season and the England manager would have been foolish not to give this particular blend a run out. Whether he sticks with it for the Poland game, when they will experience greater pressure, will be interesting.
Pope keeps latest clean sheet
Behind that four-man defence was Nick Pope, who in his sixth appearance in the England goal kept a sixth clean sheet. It was hard to judge him against Albania as he didn’t have to make a save for the second consecutive game following Thursday’s easy shut-out against San Marino.
Pope was far from convincing with his feet in the early stages of this game, slicing one kick into touch and another pass went wayward, which is one aspect of his game that Jordan Pickford is superior. However, the Burnley goalkeeper was commanding enough when coming for balls and organising his defence. Southgate can at least expect his goalkeeper to be tested more next Wednesday when Robert Lewandowski arrives at Wembley.