Gareth Southgate hailed Raheem Sterling’s new-found maturity and “devastating” finishing after the Manchester City forward helped England start their Euro 2020 qualification campaign in style.
After reaching the World Cup semi-finals and inaugural Nations League Finals last year, 2019 began with a 5-0 win over the Czech Republic in front of a sell-out Wembley crowd on Friday evening.
Sterling netted his first treble for England and earned the penalty that saw Harry Kane score the second goal.
A shot from 18-year-old debutant Callum Hudson-Odoi then led to Tomas Kalas’ own goal, with Eric Dier’s injury the only downside for Southgate.
Jadon Sancho made his first competitive start and newly-eligible Declan Rice made his debut on a memorable night, but one man dominated the talk after Friday’s Group A opener.
“I saw what I’ve seen all week from him, so the level he hit didn’t surprise me,” manager Southgate said of Sterling.
“He’s in a really confident moment, not only on the field, but off the field he’s so mature and comfortable in himself.
“I think I talked about that earlier in the week, really, how I’ve seen that.
“So I’m delighted for him to get the reaction that he did from the crowd here. We can’t hide from the fact that he’s had difficult moments with England and he’s turned that full circle.
“I also think the goals in Spain were an important moment for him. You could see the release that had brought.
“And his finishes there and tonight were finishes that he was just taking on without thinking too much.
“At times, you could almost see the thought process in the past, but he’s hungry for those goals.
“I know he’s spoken about that before, of how he’s added that incentive to his game and I thought he was devastating tonight.”
Sterling wrapped up his hat-trick with a deflected effort on an evening that started with him scoring at the end of a 25-pass move.
The Manchester City forward celebrated his second by revealing a T-shirt paying tribute to 13-year-old Damary Dawkins, who died on Sunday after a battle with leukaemia.
“I’ve put him into the leadership group that we have,” Southgate said of Sterling.
“I think he’s showing those signs, I think he’s a role model for the younger players coming in.
“He’s really focused on his training and his preparation and I think he’s enjoyed that extra responsibility as well.”
The only setback on a comfortable night for England was the hip injury that forced off Dier and rules him out of Monday’s trip to Montenegro.
But despite scoring five goals and keeping a clean sheet, Southgate was not completely happy.
“I thought we were a little slow at the start to move the ball, and there was a period at the beginning of the second half where we lost a bit of tactical discipline and conceded chances that on another night would be punished,” the England boss said.
“I’m nit-picking, but I think we can get better and I think we’ve got to keep doing that because these guys have got the potential to play at an even higher level than they did tonight, I think.”