England get the job done but it’s a night of Mexican waves and paper planes!
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 look set to be 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. Southgate chose a team that was some way from what we would call his first XI. Still, they should have been better than this. Given the quality the England manager has at his disposal, there is no such thing as an under-strength team.
They missed the injured Jude Bellingham, though, and they lacked their usual penetration from full back. Trent AlexanderArnold was the best player on the field from his roaming midfield position but there were too few others that reached his level.
Ahead early through 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 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 of the size of Greater Manchester.
There was a second-half debut for Cole Palmer which lifted the spirits a little. One for the future, there. Palmer beat a man with his first touch but on the whole this was a night of paper aeroplanes and Mexican waves, a night to look not so much at a tepid 96- minute performance but a campaign that has, ultimately, placed England exactly where they need to be.
Malta threatened first but that was as good as got for them, in the first half at least. Teddy Teuma, of Reims in France, drove low and hard towards Jordan Pickford’s left-hand post from the edge of the penalty area and only missed by a foot or so.
The visiting team were better than they had been when providing only token resistance to England in losing 4-0 at home back in June. Malta were more competitive here, more assertive.
Peculiarly, however, they gave the first goal to England in the same way they did back in early summer and at exactly the same stage of the game. An own goal in the eighth minute.
It was a sharp England move down the left that caused panic here at Wembley. 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 cutback was designed to have Kane as its recipient but the ball was never allowed to reach the England captain, 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 not short of motivation or drive, though. Set up to play with Alexander-Arnold next to Jordan Henderson as a midfield pair, the Liverpool full-back — wearing No 10 — was given licence to push forward when England were in possession, which was most of the time.
Alexander-Arnold certainly suits the role against modest opponents. He was superb as England tore apart North Macedonia at Old Trafford at the end of last season and it will be intriguing to see if and when he is given the opportunity to play there against a better team.
Here he passed the ball beautifully both long and short. One diagonal pass from right to left to Kane was delivered as if by laser.
In terms of chances, though, England struggled a little. Kane
may have had a penalty when Bonello seemed to bring him down in the 29th minute only to be booked for diving. He certainly didn’t go over on purpose. The only debating point was whether Bonello made heavy contact.
England enjoyed the possession, as we would have expected. They missed the cleverness of the injured Jude Bellingham, however, while over the left side Marcus Rashford was not initially able to find space to use his pace against his full back.
Changes did come at half-time but only two as Kyle Walker and Bukayo Saka were introduced to give England’s right side a different look.
England did need to step things up, if not for purposes of qualification then certainly for the purposes of entertainment. There was a full house here and as the game approached the hour-mark Southgate’s team had not managed a shot on target. The own goal didn’t count.
Another lovely pass from Alexander-Arnold, this time inside the Malta left back, did present Saka with an opportunity but his shot was deflected wide. Rashford also had a chance within a minute only to overrun the ball before Alexander-Arnold and Rashford went for the same ball 25 yards from goal and managed to clatter each other to the ground.
Shortly after that Palmer was given his first England start and his first involvement was to take the ball, accelerate and beat a man in red. It is exactly that kind of confident football — always played on the front foot — for Chelsea that earned the 21-year- old his elevation into Southgate’s senior squad in the first place.
A shot on target soon followed. You could argue it was an hour overdue. A move down the right saw Saka involved and when the ball broke, Alexander-Arnold volleyed the ball low and firmly in to Bonello’s chest.
Alexander-Arnold had by now emerged as England’s best player by a distance. His use of the ball had been excellent all night.
It’s worth remembering that a year ago, as England prepared for their first game of the World Cup in Qatar, that Alexander-Arnold was at home, injured but also seemingly on the fringes of Southgate’s thoughts. Quite a lot has changed in twelve months, for Alexander-Arnold and indeed his manager.
England scored again with 15 minutes left and it was a good goal. Kyle Walker — another substitute — linked well with Manchester City team-mate Foden and when Saka was played in to space, he was able to pull the ball back for Kane to score.
The ball was in the net again within a minute, as Wembley finally came to life. This was a super goal, Rice running from deep to curl the ball in to the corner from the edge of the area.
Sadly, the same VAR officials that had chosen not to intervene when Kane was booked earlier on were quick to point out he was standing in an offside position as the ball flew past him here.
TRENT ALEXANDERARNOLD received the ball on the halfturn and surveyed the landscape. Like a trigger, he drew back his left foot before firing the ammunition.
The pass was executed with faultless accuracy. Marcus Rashford did not even have to break stride as England ventured on to the attack. All with his unfavored left foot.
In the 30th-minute, AlexanderArnold, just inside Malta’s half, accepted possession again.
Head up — bang. This time Harry Kane is the beneficiary of the poetic beauty of the Liverpool man’s right foot, the 25-year-old’s raking 40-yard pass to his captain falling on a sixpence.
Wearing England’s iconic No 10 shirt, Alexander- Arnold was flicking through his full repertoire.
One and two touch passing. Unerringly precise long range balls. Driving runs into the opposition half before releasing the ball with impeccable timing. It is nothing we did not already know, of course. Alexander-Arnold is a thoroughbred, a supremely gifted player.
But with all that said, what did we really learn about the Anfield star’s true chances of holding down a long-term role in England’s midfield last night?
Malta are the 171st best team on the planet. As eye-catching as this performance appeared, the quality of the opposition should not be discounted when dissecting the merits of converting AlexanderArnold from a marauding right back into a central midfield maestro at international level.
That is not to detract from his performance in any way. You can only beat what is in front of you.
But it is time for us to learn more about whether he can become a genuine midfield option for manager Gareth Southgate.
He passed this test with flying colours. It is time to see if he can hold his own in the engine room against better opposition.
England face North Macedonia on Monday in their final Euro 2024 qualifier. That would be a perfect place to start. North Macedonia are ranked 66th by FIFA. If Alexander-Arnold can replicate this sort of showing next week, then the experiment is worth persisting with.
England face Brazil and Belgium in March. Do it then and Southgate may really be on to something.
The Liverpool man would be the first to admit he needs time to adapt to the nuances of becoming a bona fide central midfielder.
The right-back/midfield hybrid role he has excelled in under Jurgen Klopp will aid his transition towards a more advanced position at international level.
But nothing can quite prepare you for the helter- skelter of a central midfield battle at the elite level than being involved in one every three days.
And to all intents and purposes, Alexander-Arnold is still playing at full-back for Liverpool.
That is not to say he does not possess the intelligence to switch between the two positions. You only need to look at the way he controlled this match to know that he does.
Yet whether Southgate believes he can truly rely on a defender in midfield during tournament football remains to be seen.
What is for sure is that AlexanderArnold is desperate to make a fist of his England career following the endless negative rhetoric regarding his future at this level.
He was kicked from pillar to post by the Maltese, only to dust himself down and drive his team forward. That will not have gone unnoticed by Southgate.
‘I see an opportunity for me to go and play in the Euros and represent my country. It’s an opportunity I want to go and take,’ AlexanderArnold said on Monday.
All of a sudden there is real anticipation about what he can achieve for England. It was not long ago that Southgate was constantly questioned over whether he rated Alexander-Arnold after leaving him out of squads.
Those doubts, at least for now, have subsided and the player deserves credit for that. But Klopp and Southgate should also be applauded for having the gumption to give the player a platform to showcase his talents up the field.
With all that said, there is the minor matter of Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham to consider.
If Kalvin Phillips leaves Manchester City in January and plays regularly for six months, you would also imagine he will have an excellent chance of taking the final midfield position at Euro 2024.
But further exhibitions of control and zest like this one from Alexander- Arnold and Southgate could have a tough decision to make.