There’s was something uncomfortable, as an observer, about England’s 5-0 Wembley victory over the Czech Republic in the opening round of fixtures for the Euro 2020 qualifiers on Friday night.
Anyone who’s watched England regularly over the last two decades knows the Three Lions can engender a range of feelings, from hope to despair, triumph (occasionally) to desolation.
But this was something else, something new to a generation of England supporters. This was… fun. And, strange as it was, we might soon become used to it.
Against the Czech Republic, Jadon Sancho, in his first senior competitive start for his country, zipped. Raheem Sterling, en route to a hat-trick, schemed. And captain Harry Kane dropped deep to glue the attack together.
The interchanging of positions, the smooth, seamless combination play and how this vibrant front three time and again carved the Czech defence asunder was thrilling to behold.
England have, of course, had gifted attackers in the past, from seminal wingers Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews to Chris Waddle and John Barnes, from prolific scorers such as Jimmy Greaves and Geoff Hurst to Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer.
But it has been some time since such a balanced crop of forwards emerged simultaneously; Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney’s respective peaks never overlapped, for example, and you perhaps have to go back to Shearer, Teddy Sheringham, Steve McManaman and Paul Gascoigne at Euro 96 to find an England attack with such diverse capabilities and possibilities as those currently at Gareth Southgate’s disposal.
At the World Cup last summer, England rode a wave of optimism all the way to the semi-finals, but their football was not especially entertaining, reliant upon set pieces and spot kicks in lieu of open-play creativity and dynamism.
But a switch from 3-5-2 to 4-3-3 and the emergence of the livewire Sancho – who is currently level with Lionel Messi as the top assist provider in Europe’s major leagues – have, it seems, transformed England into, almost unthinkably, a side you’d now happily pay to watch.
Crucially, the new formation has allowed Sterling to move back into the kind of wide berth he is accustomed to at club level. In the midst of a three-year scoring drought, there was criticism aimed at the former Liverpool man in Russia, despite his otherwise praise-worthy performances, and questions asked about why he could not replicate the scoring form he shows with Manchester City.
Ignoring the fact that Pep Guardiola’s Premier League champions are packed with creative talent and conjure scoring opportunities better than just about any team in football, Sterling’s role at a No.10 behind Kane at the World Cup required him to act as creator, when at City his great strength is seeking and dispatching scoring chances.
Now, placed to the left of Kane, whose passing and vision goes under-appreciated due to his scoring rate, and with Sancho offering speed and ingenuity on the right, Sterling can punctuate moves, rather than being responsible for their creation.
The first goal at Wembley on Friday night perfectly encapsulated the potential of this front three: Kane dropped deep to receive the ball, picking out Sancho on the right, whose burst into the box was timed to perfection; and Sterling, as he has been doing all season for City, arrived at the back post on cue to collect a simple tap-in.
Then we come to Callum Hudson-Odoi, who was introduced with 20 minutes to play, replacing Sterling and earning a first cap before he’s even started for Chelsea in the Premier League. The 18-year-old winger – who, like Sancho, was a member of England’s under-17 world champions in 2017 – was fearless, his dribble and shot leading to the fifth goal of the night.
Hudson-Odoi may be struggling to establish himself under Maurizio Sarri at club level, but his talent is such that there is an outcry from Chelsea fans for him to be given a more prominent role, and Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Manchester United are reportedly preparing moves for the unsettled teenager; this is a young attacker of world-class potential.
Meanwhile, absent during this international break due to injury, Marcus Rashford has been in outstanding form for Manchester United since Ole Gunnar Solskjær took charge in December. The 21-year-old is on course for the most prolific season of his career and his ability to play anywhere across the frontline further boosts Southgate’s top-class options.
Of the three starting forwards against the Czech Republic, Kane was the oldest at 25, still conceivably years from his peak. Sterling, a contender for PFA Player of the Year this season and one of the best goal-scoring wide players in the world, only turned 24 in December. And Sancho, the Borussia Dortmund winger reportedly a £100million target for Manchester United, celebrated his 19th birthday three days after the game.
Adding Hudson-Odoi and Rashford into the mix, England have a group of attacking players who will grow and develop together, each bringing something unique to the brew. It is not an exaggeration to suggest England could have one of the very best forward lines in the world for years to come.
At long last, England appear to be transforming into an attacking force to be reckoned with on the world stage. Whether that leads to major honours being claimed remains to be seen, but watching them try will at least now be a source of joy, inspiration and entertainment.