PRISTINA (Reuters) - After a qualifying campaign that produced a whopping 37 goals in eight games and six conceded, it would seem harsh to criticise England but manager Gareth Southgate recognises that defensive blips could cost his team dear at the Euro 2020 finals.
Captain Harry Kane scored a remarkable 12th goal of the campaign, the most across Europe, as England beat Kosovo 4-0 on Sunday to secure one of the top six seeded berths for the tournament and maintain an average of over four goals a game.
Other than their 2-1 defeat in the Czech Republic last month, England have barely broken sweat in swatting aside the likes of Kosovo, Montenegro, Bulgaria and even the also-qualified Czechs - who they beat 5-0 at Wembley.
Southgate is awash with attacking options up front and in midfield but he will be paying much more attention to the other side of things after Kosovo, like Montenegro on Thursday, were gifted a number of opportunities through slack marking or poor organisation that better teams would undoubtedly have taken.
“We needed a tighter game and a challenge and I’m happy we got that,” said Southgate, whose side beat Kosovo 5-3 at Southampton’s stadium in a wildly open match in September.
“We had to sustain spells of pressure and gave them chances - on another night that would be a problem. Set plays in particular are something we need to go away and look at – not that we’ve conceded - but there are too many people free in the box and chances given away.
“We are always looking to improve, we know there is a bit of work to do but I can’t fault the players through this campaign, they’ve been absolutely ruthless.”
Leading the way in that regard is Kane, who became the first England player to score in every match of a qualifying campaign and equalled the England record of 12 goals in a calendar year jointly held by George Hilsdon (1908) and Dixie Dean (1927).
“As a striker I want to score goals and to win games,” said the Tottenham Hotspur striker, who got a hat-trick in the 7-0 win over Montenegro on Thursday. “I love scoring, any striker does, hopefully I can keep that going into next summer.”
Kane also recognised that not everything was perfect, but said overall it had been an uplifting end to the campaign.
“It’s two clean sheets (this week), we know we can improve,” he said. “I don’t remember Nick Pope making too many saves, but against bigger teams we’ll have to make sure we’re on it.”
(The story refiles to correct stadium in para five)
Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ken Ferris