England seal qualification in style on night they honoured past, showcased exciting future
LONDON -- On a night when the England national team commemorated its long and illustrious past, Gareth Southgate's exciting young side provided another tantalising view of the future with a merciless 7-0 demolition of Montenegro.
The occasion of England's 1,000th international match demanded a degree of pageantry, and the team's players wore shirts bearing "legacy cap numbers" to show where each of them fitted into the 147-year scheme of things. But when some of the England greats of yesteryear who had been invited to Wembley took to the pitch at half-time -- Wayne Rooney, Paul Gascoigne, Tony Adams and David Seaman among them -- it will have been in the knowledge that the real stars of the show had trotted down the tunnel moments earlier.
Southgate's men were 5-0 up by that point and whereas they had slackened off in the second half of their previous home fixture, a slapdash 5-3 success against Kosovo in Southampton, on this occasion they maintained their concentration levels to secure qualification for next year's European Championship in faultless style. The clean sheet will have pleased the manager almost as much as anything.
It is in attack, though, that this England team excels and this was the sixth time in seven games this qualifying campaign that they had scored at least four goals in a game. Led by skipper Harry Kane, whose first-half hat trick took him to 31 England goals (elevating him above Alan Shearer, Sir Tom Finney and Nat Lofthouse and into sixth place on the country's all-time list), England crossed the threshold of 30 goals in a calendar year for the first time since 1982.
Last month's shock 2-1 loss to the Czech Republic was a timely reminder that England are not yet the finished article, but the contrast between this effervescent side and the rather more functional XI that grappled its way to the World Cup semifinals last year is striking. With Kane ably abetted by Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Raheem Sterling (absent against Montenegro due to his pre-match altercation with teammate Joe Gomez), England will approach next year's tournament armed with arguably the most frightening attack in the competition.
Not since October 1987 had England scored seven goals in a game at Wembley and it is an indication of the youthfulness of this squad that not a single member of it had been born when that match took place. Indeed, with an average age of 23 years and 255 days, this was the youngest England starting lineup to have taken the field in 60 years.
It was England's full-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and, in particular, Ben Chilwell who led the way, with the latter creating three goals in the first 24 minutes. The Leicester City man's delicately flighted pass set up Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to drill his first England goal in two-and-a-half years past Milan Mijatovic in the 11th minute and he then teed up Kane for a pair of headers with first a free kick and then a corner from the left.
After Rashford followed up Harry Maguire's header to make it 4-0, Alexander-Arnold set up Kane's hat-trick goal with a deflected cross from the right. His ambitious passing throughout was every bit as accurate as it is when he dons a Liverpool shirt and, coupled with Chilwell's forays from left-back, hinted at a potential workaround for England's longstanding lack of creativity in central areas.
Chelsea's Ross Barkley -- absent here through injury -- is the only England central midfielder to have supplied more than one assist in the current qualifying campaign. The lack of spark in the engine room has obliged Kane to take on some of the creative burden himself and he notably supplied three assists in last month's 6-0 win in Bulgaria. If the full-backs can continue supplying him in this fashion, England's chief marksman will be able to spend more of his time concentrating on his main objective: hitting the target.
England's process of rejuvenation mirrors what has been going on under Frank Lampard at Chelsea this season and two of his young guns got in on the act in the second half. Mason Mount, who was making his full home debut, forced visiting defender Aleksandar Sofranac into a 66th-minute own goal before substitute Tammy Abraham completed the scoring with his first international strike, sliding in at the near post to convert Sancho's cross from the left. England qualifiers dreary affairs? Not anymore.
"We've won a group that we should win, but we've won it comfortably and we've found a way of playing against those lower-ranked teams that defend in numbers," Southgate said. "We've found a way to break them down, which maybe in the past we haven't."
With Leicester playmaker James Maddison -- England legacy cap No. 1245 -- also catching the eye with an assured (and somewhat belated) second-half debut, the only bum note for Southgate were the boos that greeted Gomez's entrance as a replacement for Mount.
Sterling, who is a native of the Wembley area, took to Twitter after the game to denounce the boo brigade, but in any case, you suspect it will take more than some argy-bargy in the team canteen to derail the juggernaut that is this England team.