On a night marred by racist chanting, the on-field action was something of an aside as England ran out comfortable winners in Sofia.
It appeared an abandonment was likely in the latter stages of the first half, with England’s players subjected to racist abuse, and Croatian referee Ivan Bebek twice stopped the game, with fans warned over the stadium sound system that the game would be cancelled should the chants continue.
These marred a night that saw England produce a comprehensive and strong performance, dismantling an awful Bulgarian side with six goals. Harry Kane’s three assists highlighted his creative qualities, while Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling each notched braces, with the former particularly impactful from the left of a midfield three.
But it is on the off-field incidents that the reaction to the game will rightly focus, with disgraceful and vile scenes in Sofia. Still, this felt like a turning point of sorts, with a high-profile game closer than ever to being cancelled due to racism, but more needs to be done, stiffer sanctions levied and Uefa need to take racism more seriously and truly combat and punish such events.
Here are five things we learned.
1. England show their maturity and respond well to vile racist chanting
The merits of playing on despite continuing racist chanting can be debated, but England deserve credit for the calm manner in which they dealt with the incidents. Gareth Southgate and Harry Kane showed their controlled authority, engaging in frank but professional discussions with the officials, and the way Tyrone Mings, on international debut, and Raheem Sterling reacted showed great maturity and thought.
Further, while all this was going on, England produced an excellent performance, comprehensively dismantling an awful Bulgarian side to do what they had to.
Ivelin Popov deserves credit, too. The Bulgarian captain went over to supporters at half-time and appeared to tell them to stop the racist chanting. That took bravery and real leadership.
2. Bulgaria need to be heavily sanctioned
These scenes were sadder still given this game was played in a partly-closed stadium, with “respect” banners in the empty sections only serving to underline the lack of action on Uefa’s part.
This was not an isolated event. There is a repeated pattern of such incidents occurring, and the time has come to move beyond education and advertising, and start giving real, consequential punishments. Tonight was a first step towards that, with signs of the protocol being implemented and an abandonment seemingly near at times, but only with stiff sanctions will behaviour change.
Uefa needs to take a tougher line, and this could represent a turning point.
While the on-field action was both one-sided and secondary to all that occurred off the pitch, there were still conclusions to be drawn from England’s performance.
3. Mings gets his chance as England’s centre-back choice remains cloudy
Despite Harry Maguire lacking in confidence and form, you’d think the Manchester United man is entrenched as one of Gareth Southgate’s two centre-backs for next summer’s European Championships. The question is who to pair him with.
There are options aplenty from which to choose for Southgate, but no-one is particularly stating their claim: John Stones is horrendously out of form and injured; Michael Keane faltering as Everton stumble; Joe Gomez unable to force his way back into the Liverpool team; and James Tarkowski and Lewis Dunk unfashionable and seemingly out of favour.
Fikayo Tomori’s time may come between now and Euro 2020, with the Chelsea man a mature young defender with a varied, complete skillset, but tonight Tyrone Mings showed he is a contender for the second berth at the back with a strong showing on England debut despite having to endure a horrible night as racist chanting marred the game.
Mings has rebuilt himself at Aston Villa and his left-footedness gives him a point of difference over the other options. The place is there to be won, and on tonight’s evidence, Mings can really push for the starting role.
4. Marcus Rashford might be a left winger
As players evolve, our opinions of them evolve too, and it is now time to admit that Marcus Rashford, the great young hope of English striking, might just be a left winger.
Rashford has been pretty woeful for Manchester United in the last couple of months, struggling horrendously to impact the game in a misfiring team with little quality around him. But the natural aptitude for forward play he showed in his breakthrough seasons seems to have been lost, too, with his movement a diminished threat, and confidence in front of goal when playing through the middle seemingly lacking.
Compare that with the purposeful cutting inside and firm finish into the corner of tonight, and you’ll see a figure now more comfortable on the flank, happy to play supporting actor with Harry Kane a reliable lead man. Tammy Abraham’s development means Rashford is less vital as a change-of-pace through the middle, and England would benefit from allowing him to continue his evolution down the left, pushing Jadon Sancho for that spare starting role alongside Kane and Raheem Sterling. And, indeed, would Manchester United, if they can find someone else to take up that central mantle.
5. Midfield gels nicely and leaves Southgate with further decisions to be made
England’s midfield worked well in combination, albeit against pretty feeble opposition. Jordan Henderson looked much more comfortable as a hustler on the right, Ross Barkley produced a fine performance on the left and this was exactly the sort of game for Harry Winks, who kept things ticking over in metronomic fashion at the base.
Southgate might perhaps be wise to take a horses for courses approach with his midfield moving forward. While a stodgier contest might call for the intricacies of Mason Mount or James Maddison, Barkley’s ability to progress with the ball at his feet and get beyond the front three were assets tonight. Similarly, Declan Rice’s destructive tendencies are incredibly useful in games where England are required to defend; less so on nights like tonight where Winks’ calm in possession and controlling presence was rather useful.
Critics might suggest that chopping and changing of this nature is detrimental to a side’s consistency, there is not too much to choose between five or six England midfielders, and there are a variety of player archetypes from which to select, which should allow them to be adaptable. Excluded trio Jesse Lingard, Dele Alli and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain might well be back in contention come the Euros, too.
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