The disparity has been difficult to explain. Harry Kane’s numbers have been phenomenal for Tottenham this season: he is the joint top scorer in the Premier League and the outright leader in assists. In all competitions at club level, the striker has 27 goals and has set up 16 more. And yet when he began this World Cup qualifier against Albania, he had failed to find the net in six England matches and contributed only one assist.
Kane is the type of competitor to take these things personally and his determination to put things right was the driving force behind a victory that sets up England nicely for Wednesday’s crunch game against Poland at Wembley. Gareth Southgate’s team lacked tempo and incision until Kane swooped to convert an excellent cross from Luke Shaw, who played his first international since September 2018. And when Kane played in Mason Mount for the second goal just after the hour, there was no doubt about the destination of the points.
England have tended to beat the teams that they would expect to beat under Southgate and there would be no exception against Albania, who are ranked 66th in the world. It was a performance that came to be marked by efficiency and comfort, and the clean sheet was welcome too. Nick Pope, in for the injured Jordan Pickford, is still to concede in six appearances. The goalkeeper did not have a save to make.
Southgate made the point before kick-off that if England wanted to be considered as a top team, they had to dictate on these types of occasion and his selection was made with front-foot football in mind. As he had done in Thursday’s easy win over San Marino, he persisted with a back four but there was a slight change from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1, with the ever adaptable Mount given a roaming role behind Kane. Mount was polished and forward-thinking throughout.
England’s passing lacked zip at the outset, partly because of a heavy playing surface, and the opening half an hour or so was tough going. Albania, who won their opening qualifier in Andorra on Thursday, were resolute in their 5-4-1 shape and England’s most likely route to goal appeared to be from set pieces. Kane banged a low free-kick at Harry Maguire, who was in the Albania wall, while Declan Rice missed a free header when reasonably placed following a Phil Foden delivery.
Kane’s goal comprehensively changed the complexion of the match. Mount recovered a half-clearance out of the Albania defence and did well to turn and work the ball to Raheem Sterling, before accepting it back from him and teeing up Shaw to cross first time. Shaw accepted the invitation and it really was the most tantalising centre. Kane was already on the move, getting in front of Freddie Veseli, and the downwards header was placed inside the corner.
Albania flickered twice on the counter in the first half, with their big moment coming on 13 minutes after a loose back pass by Mount, which Elseid Hysaj seized on. He drew Kyle Walker and played in Myrto Uzuni, who had only Pope to beat. His shot flew high.
England should have been further in front at half-time and, again, the threat came up the left flank. This time it was Sterling, taking a pass from Foden and putting over a perfect centre and, again, Kane reacted more sharply than anyone else. He got to the ball on the half-volley, five yards out and in line with the far post. The connection was true only for the effort to rattle the crossbar.
Albania felt Kane’s goal sap their spirits while it was the prompt for England to raise their intensity – their pressing was higher and more aggressive, their passing and movement slicker. Sterling unnerved the Albania defence with some of his runs.
Foden saw the goalkeeper, Etrit Berisha, push his low shot against a post on 52 minutes, after Mount and Sterling had linked up, while Kane almost forced the ball in following a corner.
The second goal had been advertised and it came when Berat Djimsiti played a pass out of defence straight to Sterling. He found Kane, whose ball ushered in Mount on the overlap up the left. Mount knew immediately what he had to do – open his body and lift a curling sidefoot shot into the far corner. The execution was flawless.
Southgate grumbled about the inability to score a third, with Kane going the closest when he prodded just wide amid a cluster of legs after Sterling had miskicked and then eked out a square ball; Kane was booked for jumping in with excessive force. The manager was also unhappy at how his team managed the last 15 minutes, charging forward when they did not have to – in his view. The blots were minor.