When summer returns to Wembley Stadium, we will have our answer. The question is whether this England team are on the verge of something historic. It will take more than a Bulgaria team ranked 60th in the world to provide any clues. England – more specifically Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford – simply overwhelmed a limited and elderly team from the Balkans. That much was expected.
So when Euro 2020 begins next June, a transnational tournament yet one which will see England play group games and possibly a semi-final at Wembley, the serious interrogation will begin. The sort of intense questioning the likes of France, Belgium and restored Spain and a resurgent Holland tend to conduct.
For now though, the evidence points to the fact that England will, at least, have a chance. They have a midfield that boasts more and more players willing to take a player on, Mason Mount making his debut on Saturday alongside Chelsea team-mate Ross Barkley.
England forward Harry Kane scores his hat-trick from the penalty spot after he was fouled in the area in the second half
Kane was was given the opportunity to claim his hat-trick after being fouled in the area with just under 20 minutes remaining
They have full backs aplenty. More importantly they have an attack that will not be surpassed by many. Sterling, once an England scapegoat, was warmly applauded as he left what is almost literally his home pitch, having grown up in the neighbourhood. Seven goals in seven appearances, his considerable contribution to England was always apparent but is now clear to everyone.
Obviously hat-trick man Harry Kane was man of the match, but in reality, these two worked superbly in tandem and it was hard to split them. And a huge supporting role was played by the effervescent Marcus Rashford. To think, they had Jadon Sancho to come off the bench and Callum Hudson-Odoi to return from injury.
We have been here before, of course, and we bear the scars. Caution ought to be a watchword. Holland demonstrated the limitations of progress in June. There remain better teams in Europe. But not many. And the gap between them and England is perhaps narrowing a little.
England’s Raheem Sterling scores his team’s third goal of the match in the 55th minute of the Euro 2020 qualifying match
Sterling celebrates adding a third goal after Spurs striker Kane picked him out in the middle with a cross
Forward Kane doubles England’s lead from the penalty spot early on in the second half of the Euro 2020 qualifier
Marcus Rashford is brought down in the penalty area by Bulgaria’s Nikolay Bodurov and the referee pointed to the spot
Kane celebrates after sending Bulgaria goalkeeper Plamen Iliev the wrong way from 12 yards out in the second half
Most people are familiar with the value of pressing the defence high up the pitch, even if it has taken Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola’s arrival in England for the benefits to be fully appreciated. Roy Hodgson wanted his England sides to surf the particular new tactical wave, which is actually based on some fairly old solid principals.
Yet they never convinced. Under Southgate though, England have begun to look like a side who can embrace this modern world: maybe not as convincingly as Liverpool or Manchester City, but among international sides they look one of the best.
Certainly too good for Bulgaria and keeper Plamen Iliev, who was attempting to make ambitious use of the new rule which allows you to pass to a defender inside the penalty area from a goal kick. He exchanged passes with Georgi Sarmov and then attempted to angle a pass to Vasil Bozhikov on his left.
Sadly for him, such is the energy of the modern player, that Sterling had already sprinted into that area to close down the defender. Worse, Iliev’s passing was more in the mould of an old-school goalkeeper: distinctly average. It was skewed closer to Sterling than Bozhikov and the Man City man pounced, seizing the ball and cutting it back, for Kane.
The centre forward had led that initial press – it is one of the huge attributes to his game – yet here he was the beneficiary of Sterling’s industry and, having already got clear of Sarmov, he then made an excellent feint back to receive Sterling’s pass, which meant it looked as though he had a simple finish to open the scoring. Southgate punched the air. Until then, it had all looked a little stale, a little pedestrian.
Bulgaria assumed the traditional 5-4-1 formation teams like to employ at Wembley. England looked terribly neat and tidy as they passed the ball around dominating possession: causing any actual threat seemed a secondary consideration.
There was a volley over from Jordan Henderson and a speculative long-range effort from Rashford. Sterling made admirable efforts to do something more interesting, spinning away and making runs past Bulgaria’s last man, but was largely frustrated.
Ross Barkley looked the most creative of the midfielders. He and Sterling combined superbly in the 19th minute, the Chelsea player receiving the ball on the half turn and delivering a sweeping pass into the Manchester City man’s path. Their work was undone by Kane’s poor run, who finished Sterling’s cross but had strayed offside.
Tottenham striker Kane opened the scoring for England in the 24th minute of the Euro 2020 qualifying match
Kane celebrates after breaking the deadlock against Group A opponents Bulgaria in the first half on Saturday evening
Kane is surrounded by his England team-mates after putting the Three Lions ahead early on in the clash at Wembley Stadium
Bulgaria’s Brazilian connection almost disrupted England’s grip on the game immediately after the re-start. Marcelinho chipped in a lovely ball over the England defence for Wanderson to have a clear strike on goal. Both were born in Brazil but are naturalised Bulgarians and play their club football in the country. It was an impudent move worthy of their country of birth and required Jordan Pickford to be at his best, standing strong and parrying away.
It was a rare moment of hope for Bulgaria, however. England were simply stronger, better, quicker. On 49 minutes Rashford eventually decided that the direct route was best, given that he was up against a 33-year-old.
His sheer pace bamboozled Nikolay Bodurov and he simply powered passed him. Overwhelmed, Bodurov attempted a recovery tackle, won the ball but in the ensuing tangle, as Rashford changed direction, managed to upend his man as well and concede a penalty. Harry Kane directed it confidently to the keeper’s left, sending Illiev the wrong way for 2-0.
Chelsea midfielder Mason Mount came on to make his international senior debut in the second half of the clash
Manchester City’s Sterling beats his man during the opening exchanges of the Group A encounter on Saturday evening
Bulgaria defender Nikolay Bodurov (right) vies with England and Manchester United striker Rashford at Wembley Stadium
Admirably, Bulgaria stuck to their principals, passing out from the back. However, it was perhaps also unwise, given it had already proved their undoing. On 56 minutes keeper Illiev tried to find Bodurov but Kane nicked the ball away. Rashford, now uncontainable, raced on to it. He fed Kane, who had kept pace and took the ball to the byline to cross, where Sterling waited. Returning the first-half favour, he pulled the ball back for his team-mate, who, despite a nudge in the back, could hardly miss for 3-0.
By now it was merely a case of damage limitation for Bulgaria. As such, the bedraggled Bodurov was reprieved, replaced by Kristian Dimitrov on 65 minutes. It brought little respite. When Harry Kane burst into the box on 72 minutes, Dimitrov went to ground but scrambled up as Kane prepared to shoot.
Realising he couldn’t get in front of Kane, he simply hooked his striking leg away to concede a penalty. As such, it only delayed Kane’s hat-trick by a minute or so. The England captain directed this penalty to the right of Illiev. His 25th goal for England means he has passed Sir Geoff Hurst in the scoring charts at the age of 26.
Bulgaria midfielder Wanderson (left) looks to hold up England midfielder Ross Barkley during the first 45 minutes
England manager Gareth Southgate watches on as his side looks to continue their 100 per cent record in qualifying
England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford tips the ball over from a Bulgaria free-kick as the visitors tried to find a consolation
England’s Kieran Trippier (left) and Bulgaria’s Anton Nedyalkov battle for the ball close to the corner flag on Saturday
England and Tottenham full back Danny Rose challenges for the ball with Bulgaria defender Strahil Popov in the first half