Sometimes it pays to look not at the field but at the facts. England are through to the finals of next summer’s European Championships in Germany as group winners and, ahead of the draw, one of the seeded nations.
Mission accomplished from that point of view for Gareth Southgate and his team. They have dominated their qualifying group from the moment they beat Italy in Naples back in March. It has been a campaign to underline their status as one of the favourites for Euro 2024.
This, though, was a rather moribund performance against a nation that has lost every single one of its qualifying games. This was a night of paper aeroplanes and Mexican waves. When the stadium announcer revealed there would be six minutes of added time at the end of the game, there were groans from the crowd. That felt like a first but a full house populated in part by youngsters and parents had clearly decided it was time for bed.
Southgate will not worry much about this, if indeed at all. A year ago he was in Qatar ahead of a World Cup that he felt would be his last tournament as England manager. The public warmth towards him had run out, he thought.
Things changed during that month in the Gulf, though, and his team’s trajectory is now upwards again. A coach can sustain a night like this when his team has blown through qualifying without breaking sweat. All eyes will soon be on Germany and Southgate will feel as optimistic about his team as he has ever done.
England beat Malta 2-0 at Wembley on Friday in their penultimate Euro 2024 qualifying clash
England went ahead after an unfortunate own goal from Malta defender Enrico Pepe (No 13)
Harry Kane made it 2-0 late on after he finished off a fine team move from the Three Lions
It was the eighth successive game that the in-form Bayern Munich striker had scored in
Your browser does not support iframes.
Here against such modest opposition, Southgate chose a side that was some way from what we would call his first eleven. Still they should have been much better than this. Given the quality the England manager now has at his disposal, there really is no such thing as an under-strength team.
England (4-3-3): Pickford, Trippier, Maguire, Guehi, Tomori (Walker 45); Alexander-Arnold, Gallagher (Saka 45), Henderson (Rice 61); Foden, Kane, Rashford (Palmer 61)
Substitutes not used: Johnstone, Ramsdale, Bowen, Grealish, Konsa, Lewis, Phillips, Watkins
Manager: Gareth Southgate
Scorer: Pepe own goal 8, Kane 75
Booked: Tomori, Kane
Malta (5-3-2): Bonello; Borg, Pepe, Borg (Muscat 79); Mbong (Attard 86), Yannick, Guillaumier (Kristensen 59), Teuma, Camenzuli; Mbong (Jones 59), Reid (Nwoko 79)
Substitutes not used: Al Tumi, Apap, Grech, Muscat, Overend, Pisani, Shaw
Manager: Michele Marcolini
Booked: Mbong, Guillaumier
Referee: Luis Godinho
England missed the injured Jude Bellingham, though, and they lacked their usual penetration from full-back. Trent Alexander-Arnold was the best player on the field from his roaming midfield position but there were too few others that reached his level.
Ahead early though an own goal from Enrico Pepe, England didn’t actually manage a shot on target of their own until we had been playing for an hour.
Harry Kane probably should have been awarded a penalty in the 29th minute but was for some reason booked for diving – VAR didn’t intervene – and it was not until the captain rounded off a good right-sided move in the 75th minute that England put daylight between themselves and an opponent from an island with a population equivalent to a fifth the size of Greater Manchester.
There was a second half debut for Chelsea’s Cole Palmer which lifted the spirits a little. One for the future, there. Palmer beat a man with his first touch and after winning a corner with another shimmy soon after, the wattage of his smile looked as though it could have provided power for the whole of north London.
Contrast that with another difficult England experience for Jordan Henderson. Selected here alongside Alexander-Arnold, Henderson – an England veteran of thirteen years and eighty caps – was booed when substituted in the second half. Henderson plays his football in Saudi Arabia now and a section of the England support seemed intent on reminding him what they think of that.
Early on, England looked as though they would amble through the night. On reflection, maybe that was the problem. Maybe they did. Not enough energy. Not enough oomph.
However, it was an underwhelming display from Gareth Southgate’s side at Wembley
Kane was then booked for diving in the first half despite being clipped by Henry Bonello
Trent Alexander-Arnold was given another opportunity to feature in a midfield role for England
But it did feel as though they would score goals once they were ahead so early. When they played Malta away in June, England took the lead through an own goal in the eighth minute. Here they did exactly the same.
It was a sharp England move down the right that caused the panic for Malta. Phil Foden, firmly in Southgate’s starting eleven these days, moved on to a slick ball from Marc Guehi and accelerated past his man in to the penalty area. His cut back was due to have Kane as its recipient but the ball was never allowed to reach him, striking Pepe on the knee and looping painfully in to the goal via a hand from goalkeeper Henry Bonello.
It was a goal rather in keeping with the occasion. A little low key. Foden didn’t even see fit to celebrate properly. Own goals can feel a little like that.
England were set to ease through their gears but it didn’t happen. They were clunky and out of sync. A good team would have taken advantage of that. Malta were not that team but once Kane’s penalty appeal for a trip by Bonello had disappeared on the wind and the indifference of VAR, England drifted. Alexander-Arnold dropped a couple of delicious passes on to the toes of his team-mates but nothing came of either. Out on the left, Marcus Rashford struggled.
Cole Palmer was introduced off the bench in the second half for his international debut
Declan Rice was unfortunate to have a fine individual goal ruled out by VAR for offside late on
Wembley had paid an emotional tribute to the late Sir Bobby Charlton ahead of kick off
The second half brought marginal improvement. There were some shots at least and Kane eventually scored after Kyle Walker and Foden combined to release substitute Bukayo Saka down the right and his pull-back was clipped first time past Bonello by the eternally-hungry Bayern Munich striker.
Declan Rice, another substitute, scored a lovely curled goal within a minute but that one was chalked off by VAR. Kane was standing half a yard offside and the ball seemed to brush his shirt on the way past. Correct decision.
So England head to North Macedonia for the group’s denouement on Monday night. It should be better than this but the truth is that it doesn’t largely matter if it isn’t.
IT’S ALL KICKING OFF!
It’s All Kicking Off is an exciting new podcast from Mail Sport that promises a different take on Premier League football.
It is available on MailOnline, Mail+, YouTube, Apple Music and Spotify.
Your browser does not support iframes.