England wins 7-0 over North Macedonia, giving Gareth Southgate a welcome selection headache.
Bukayo Saka’s beaming smile demonstrated how much England has changed since they last put their show on the road at home.
Arsenal’s 21-year-old – the amazing talent Gunners supporters refer to as “Starboy” – kissed the match ball as he accomplished his first career hat-trick as the centerpiece of England’s 7-0 hammering of North Macedonia at Old Trafford.
When Saka was substituted, the entire stadium rose to him, and England did the same after a hugely entertaining romp to victory made it four wins from four in their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign.
It would take something very amazing for England not to qualify, especially with their toughest game already completed after defeating Italy in Naples.
This was a long cry from the last time England played a home game away from Wembley, nearly exactly a year ago.
North Macedonia 7-0 England – read the report
Do you know who these England hat-trick heroes are?
It culminated in a 4-0 hammering against Hungary in a Uefa Nations League game at Molineux – a defeat and performance that elicited such a negative reaction from home fans that manager Gareth Southgate pondered extending his stay after the World Cup.
Southgate elected to continue after England lost to France in the quarter-finals in Qatar, and one look at the talent at his disposal explains why.
The typical disclaimer applies here, as the caliber of competition, both here and in the 4-0 triumph in Malta on Friday, was distinctly sub-par.
It is coping with elite opposition that has caused England’s troubles, and they may not get the chance to fully test themselves until the Euros in Germany next year.
It is still easy to praise England’s work, and there is little doubt that Southgate has a wealth of attacking potential at his disposal.
And Saka was the hero of this particular performance, with one particular bond growing in this team and already showing promise of paying huge returns for England in the future.
The big experiment and talking point of these two qualifiers was Southgate’s decision to play Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield. It’s been a smashing success, especially because he appears to be on the same wavelength as Saka.
They worked together to set up England’s first goal in Malta and were involved in the true “X Factor” moment of this victory over North Macedonia just after halftime.
Alexander-Arnold found Saka with a wonderful long pass, just as he did in Malta. Saka took it under control again, this time with his chest, before unleashing a magnificent volley beyond the bewildered North Macedonia goalie Stole Dimitrievski.
Saka’s teammates’ obvious delight when he completed his treble – and when they sought him out with the match ball at the final whistle – demonstrated that he is not only richly talented, but also very popular.
As usual, Harry Kane was on target, scoring his 57th goal for England before adding another with a penalty. Marcus Rashford, who was so dangerous in the first half, scored after an unselfish feed from Jordan Henderson.
From the bench, Southgate was able to use Manchester City’s Champions League-winning combo Phil Foden and Jack Grealish. The latter was greeted with tremendous applause in the odd setting of Old Trafford, his reputation seemingly reinforced by those, should we say, passionate celebrations following the glory of victory over Inter Milan in Istanbul.
Jude Bellingham, widely regarded as England’s shining superstar of the future, was ruled out due to injury. The teenager has joined Real Madrid in a deal worth up to £115 million. He’ll be right back in when he’s ready.
Southgate now has a joyful conundrum and plenty of time to find solutions, with qualification more or less confirmed and a genuine sense of confidence and optimism spreading around the camp.
The lineup that defeated North Macedonia will be the foundation for England’s Euro 2016 squad, however Chelsea’s Reece James, if fit, will challenge Kyle Walker at right-back.
Harry Maguire will undoubtedly need to play often, presumably somewhere other than Manchester United, to put those keeping tabs on his position at bay.
Foden and Grealish will fight for a spot on the flanks, while Raheem Sterling will look to bounce back following a disappointing season at Chelsea.
However, with the success of Alexander-Arnold’s transition to the advanced position he has recently occupied for Liverpool, all eyes are on midfield.
Declan Rice will start, and Bellingham’s position seems unassailable, but will Southgate go with the safer choice of Kalvin Phillips or Jordan Henderson beside Rice, or will Alexander-Arnold be the answer?
It may be a more difficult situation for Southgate against stronger opponents, but it is a wonderful problem to have.
So much relies on how next season goes, obviously, but England could not be in better shape to qualify for Germany next summer.
Given England’s talent, there should be no excuse for them not just making it to Euro 2024, but also going deep into it as they look to improve on their previous appearance, when they lost in the final to Italy at Wembley.