Hat-trick hero Bukayo Saka helped England sign off the season in style with a 7-0 thrashing of North Macedonia, which maintains their 100 per cent record and top spot in Euro 2024 qualifying Group C.
The Arsenal forward scored two stunners, blasting in from a tight angle for his first before receiving a superb Trent Alexander-Arnold pass and firing in from the edge of the box barely two minutes into the second half. He then completed his first career hat-trick with a perfectly-timed run in behind and cool finish, capping a brilliant individual season of his own, as England ripped their visitors apart.
North Macedonia – a side which beat Italy in their World Cup play-off last year – had put up stubborn resistance initially and it wasn’t until Harry Kane turned in Luke Shaw’s cutback that it all opened up for Gareth Southgate’s team.
Saka fired into the roof of the net soon after and Marcus Rashford capped a superb first-half for England with a close range finish to grab an international goal on his home patch.
Saka’s two strikes at the start of the second half had England’s supporters bouncing but there was more celebrating to come, with Kalvin Phillips scoring his first international goal and Kane adding another from the penalty spot after John Stones was fouled at a set-piece. “The scoreline is outrageous,” England boss Southgate said afterwards. “There was no evidence Macedonia would suffer like that, that the game would be as straightforward as it was.”
England’s cricketers have been taking the plaudits for their attacking Bazball style – but Gazball from the country’s footballers means they now have four wins from four in qualifying and are well on the way towards reaching next summer’s tournament in Germany.
Qualification for Euro 2024 is not assured but after playing half their fixtures, England lead second-placed Ukraine by six points, although they have a game in hand and third-placed Italy have only played twice, because of their Nations League commitments in this window.
For Southgate, though, he will be most satisfied with a positive, confident, cohesive performance from his players at the end of a long campaign, which began with him and the team being heavily criticised and doubted after poor results last summer.
A familiar quarter-final exit at the World Cup hurt but the potential of this team is plain to see and their supporters will be dreaming of glory in 12 months’ time…
Ron Walker’s player ratings
England: Pickford (n/a or 6), Walker (8), Stones (8), Maguire (8), Shaw (7), Alexander-Arnold (8), Henderson (8), Rice (7), Saka (10), Kane (9), Rashford (9).
Subs: Grealish (7), Foden (6), Gallagher (5), Phillips (7), Wilson (6).
North Macedonia:Dimitrievski (5), S Ristovski (5), Zajkov (4), Velkovski (5), Ashkovski (4), Ademi (6), Bardhi (6), Elmas (6), Alioski (4), Nestorovski (6), Trajkovski (5).
Subs:Betjulai (5), Dorian Babunski (6), Serafimov (6), Atanasov (6), David Babunski (5).
Player of the match: Bukayo Saka
How England sent seven past North Macedonia
Last season had finished with a humbling 4-0 defeat at home to Hungary for England and while a repeat never seemed on the cards this time around, North Macedonia had been billed as a significant step up from Friday’s opponents Malta, which they proved to be during the early stages.
Southgate’s side were limited to a handful of half-chances, with a Saka shot saved, Stones header off target and Rashford’s cross-shot claimed by goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski after a clash of heads with Kane had temporarily forced bloodied North Macedonia captain Stefan Ristovski off the pitch.
England made three changes from Friday’s win over Malta, with Man City duo Kyle Walker and John Stones coming in along with Marcus Rashford and Kieran Trippier, Marc Guehi and James Maddison making way. Trent Alexander-Arnold continued in midfield and Bukayo Saka was fit to start.
With the half-hour mark approaching, the game was going to plan for the visitors, who had drawn on both of their previous trips to these shores. But the Man Utd link-up between Rashford and Shaw down the left-hand side of the pitch opened up the defence and there was Kane to score for the sixth international in a row.
The floodgates opened. Good play on the other flank led to Kyle Walker finding Saka in space inside the area and he gave the ‘keeper no chance with a rocket of a finish. Rashford should have made it three after Harry Maguire’s surging run soon after but made no mistake when he was presented with a similar opportunity by Jordan Henderson on the stroke of half-time.
Alexander-Arnold showed his midfield role is here to stay with another sublime pass for England’s third – although Saka still had plenty to do when he took a touch, chested it up and then smacked the ball in from 18 yards with his left foot. His third was a simpler finish from Kane’s well-weighted through ball and a special moment for the 21-year-old who proudly showed off the match ball at full-time.
North Macedonia may have been relieved to see him subbed off moments later but the onslaught kept on coming, with a cross from replacement Jack Grealish breaking to Phillips to hit the net – a sweet moment for him in a city in which he’s scooped plenty of team awards but so far failed to fire individually since his big-money move from Leeds.
A seventh England goal then came from Kane’s expertly-taken penalty – his 58th goal for his country – after Stones was hauled down before the final whistle finally brought the battering to an end.
For so long targeted for his cautious play, this was a night Southgate can say he unleashed the attacking potential of his talented squad. It will make them a feared proposition at next summer’s Euros, when qualification is surely secured.
Southgate: The scoreline was outrageous; Saka is elite
England boss Gareth Southgate: “Although the scoreline is outrageous, that wasn’t how you were expecting the game to be. There was no evidence Macedonia would suffer like that, that the game would be as straightforward as it was. Certainly in the opening 20 minutes it didn’t look that way. It’s huge credit to… our senior players have set a brilliant tone all week.
“We said to them at half-time that you have to keep enjoying a night like [Monday], keep driving and finishing it well because it’s not often you have the team in that sort of moment.
“Post World Cup we’ve hit a sweet spot. There’s a hunger to go further than we’ve been and a desire to keep pushing forward but a confidence from the matches we’ve played and the big nights we’ve been involved with and the ability they know they have. That’s a good place to be. We have to keep pushing them now.
“They’ve set a standard in the last four games against different sorts of opponents where anything can be possible. They’ve been really good to watch, exciting to watch, there’s competition for places and to get into the squad but around that there’s a brilliant feel as a group and that’s what creates a strong team and I think the crowd have connected with that.”
On Saka: “He’s had an injury for a few weeks that just needs managing, and it would have been easy not to appear and when you then have one of the best night’s of your life it’s a reminder to everybody it’s worth going through those things.
“To see the joy on his face, he’s such a popular member of the team and so humble, works incredibly hard and talented. It was an outstanding performance. I think he’s at an elite level. He’s exceptional to work with.”
Saka: I’m just so happy; they couldn’t handle us
Bukayo Saka to Channel 4: “This is a feeling I can’t really put it into words. There’s nothing I can say to describe it. I’m just so happy.
“Tonight was a really special display that we put out. Of course, with me and Rashy running down the wings, we were really direct and they couldn’t really handle us. I enjoyed playing out there today.
“[Trent Alexander-Arnold] is a top, top player, everyone knows that, but at half-time he said to me he was going to do that pass [for his second goal]. When I scored, I was looking for him to thank him because he did it perfectly. I didn’t have to break my stride.
“It’s been a really long season. I couldn’t have ended it in a better way. Time to relax and have a break. We’re really happy with the way the fans turned out and supported us.”
Opta stats – England’s big win in numbers
- England have now won 12 consecutive home games in European Championship qualifying by an aggregate score of 47-4.
- This was North Macedonia’s heaviest ever senior international defeat, and the first time they have conceded seven times in a single match.
- This was England’s biggest margin of victory in a home match since November 2019, when they beat Montenegro 7-0 at Wembley.
- For a second successive game, England have allowed their opponents no shots at all, having also faced zero shots vs Malta last time out.
- Harry Kane has scored at least once in 21 of his last 22 major tournament qualifying games for England (World Cup/Euros), netting 31 goals overall in those matches.
What’s next for England?
The next international break will see England resume their Euro 2024 Qualifying campaign against Ukraine on Saturday September 9. Kick-off 5pm.
Gareth Southgate’s side will then head to Scotland three days later for a friendly with kick-off at 7.45pm.
Where and when is Euro 2024?
Germany are hosting the tournament, which is scheduled to take place from June 14 to July 14 2024.
The format will be the same as Euro 2020, where the top two in each of the six final tournament groups will proceed to the round of 16, along with the four best third-placed finishers.