Is there a better ‘front three’ in international football at present than Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford?
“I think that they’re as exciting as anything, really,” Gareth Southgate said after the Euro 2020 qualifying tie win over Bulgaria that means England top Group A with three victories from three fixtures and 14 goals scored.
Brushing aside Bulgaria, with a Harry Kane hat-trick that took him to 25 international goals and above Sir Geoff Hurst in the all-time goal-scorers list, is hardly a gauge of whether England have the potential to win the tournament next summer. Southgate is fully aware that he has been dealt a group that, despite the threat of an emerging Kosovo in Southampton on Tuesday, should be easily dealt with.
That, in itself, poses a familiar problem for England who have tended to qualify without complication for major tournaments – only to be halted by the first top-ranked nation they face in a finals. The World Cup in 2018 went some way to remedying that, with a win over Colombia, even if England were beaten by Croatia in the semi-finals and the Nations League continued it even if – again – they were defeated by Holland who will definitely be one of the contenders next summer.
To temper expectation Southgate reeled off Portugal, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Belgium as other inevitable challengers. But it was interesting how enthusiastic – and excited – he is by the “players that lift you off your seat” that he is able to select. Starting with his attack.
Portugal – with Cristiano Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva and, possibly, Joao Felix – may disagree when it comes to discussing who has the most dangerous ‘front three’ while France will point to Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann – both undoubtedly world-class – in their attacking triumvirate although Olivier Giroud may be the weaker link in that unless Ousmane Dembele re-finds his way.
But it is not over-the-top to say that the English trio are up there and Southgate recalled the Nations League victory away to Spain last October that still feels like a seminal moment.
“I remember going to Spain and thinking well, a really tough game, but actually, when we look at our front three and look at their front three on the night, I felt that we were strong,” he said of an occasion when Sterling scored twice and Rashford once. “And I’ve got to say, we’ve got [Jadon] Sancho and [Callum] Hudson-Odoi who are going to push, and really push, so I think that it is exciting.”
A coach would take the English trio over who played for Spain that day – Iago Aspas, Rodrigo and Marco Asensio – with Southgate conceding that, on occasions, “sometimes you can overlook the brilliant things that they do, that maybe other countries don’t have”.
Certainly all three have benefited from the switch in formation after the World Cup when Southgate abandoned the 3-5-2 approach, realising it would only take England so far, and opted for a bolder 4-3-3 which is also aided by the emergence of some exciting young midfielders even if he is still to settle on his preferred combinations in that department.
Against Bulgaria he opted for Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson and Ross Barkley but it would not be a surprise if one, or even two, of Mason Mount, James Maddison, Harry Winks, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ruben Loftus-Cheek or even Phil Foden forced their way in. “When you consider that a couple of years back, we were looking at the midfield thinking, ‘OK, which direction are we heading?’ I think changing to a three has helped with those options,” Southgate said.
It has also helped in attack. “The balance of speed, intelligent movement,” Southgate said as he – effectively – compared Kane to Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino who is part of such a devastating front three at Liverpool. “Harry [Kane] at times sacrifices his positioning to help create space but also it’s his movement, dropping into those pockets, playing balls inside full-backs for his team-mates. Nobody can look at our team and question the work that they do, the unselfishness for the team. So it sets a great benchmark for us.”
While Southgate said that Kane and Sterling “have proven now, season after season” how good they are at the “elite level” he conceded that Rashford – still just 21 – remains “a work in progress”. “We’ve, for a long time, almost wanted Marcus to be that option as a nine, I’m still not certain that that is where he is happiest and where he does his best work,” he explained.
“A lot of his development at [Manchester] United was as a wide raider, and I think he isn’t as strong as Harry with his back to goal and holding play up, so if he plays as a nine, he will play it differently to Harry. But, a lot of his best work is in that inside left channel, coming in off the line.”
Just, in fact, as he did to earn England’s first penalty when he ran at the Bulgarian defence, feinted to cross, and was caught by Nikolay Bodoruv. Kane despatched it – inevitably – just as he did to complete his hat-trick after he was fouled as he shaped to shoot. His first goal, in the first-half, owed everything to Sterling’s sharpness and aggression as he intercepted the ball when Bulgaria tried to play it put from the back and teed up Kane.
Sterling also scored and it was telling as it resulted from Rashford again running at the defence, slipping a pass to Kane who crossed for the forward to bundle it over the line as he has done so many times for Manchester City.
The post-match focus inevitably centred on Kane’s contribution with Southgate acknowledged that with 25 goals in 40 England appearances – an average of a goal every 123 minutes - it would be a surprise if the 26-year-old does not overtake Wayne Rooney’s record of 53.
“The reality of that is that there’s a reason that only Bobby [Charlton] and Gary [Lineker] and Wayne have got there, because it’s such a hard challenge to stay fit, the number-one choice, focused, motivated for the long period that you need to be able to get the games and to get those goals,” Southgate said. “But if anybody has that strength of mentality, for sure it’s Harry.” Especially if he continues to receive such attacking support.
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