England defeats Malta 2-0 in World Cup qualifying match. The Guardian: “Gareth Southgate has been in the job under a fortnight but already he can be added to the list of England managers whose team have been booed at Wembley. Admittedly it was only a smattering this time, rather than the mutinous soundtrack that accompanied Roy Hodgson’s last match, but the mixed reaction at the final whistle was a pointed reminder that England will need more than a 2-0 victory against Malta before they have retrieved some credibility.
Southgate should probably not take it too personally after being parachuted into the role on an emergency basis, but he could probably be forgiven for wishing that his team had been able to add a few more goals against a Malta side that looked ripe for a good old-fashioned thrashing.
Roberto Mancini was here as a guest and, though it would be a leap of logic to assume the former Manchester City manager is being primed for the job, he is currently out of work and has talked before about fancying a stab at managing England. Southgate needs his team to impress during his four matches as caretaker manager if he is to be offered the job full-time and, on that basis, he must be disappointed his team had to settle for the first-half goals from Daniel Sturridge and Dele Alli.
To put it into context, Malta arrived at Wembley with the grand total of two wins in the last three years, those victories coming against the footballing superpowers of Lithuania and Faroe Islands. Malta’s current position in Fifa’s world rankings, 176th, puts them level with Laos, though just behind Suriname, Vanuatu, Cambodia and Tahiti, and is the lowest they have dropped since the system was devised almost a quarter of a century ago. Scotland have already beaten them 5-1 in this qualifying programme though, in fairness, England could have won even more convincingly had it not been for a splendid performance from Andrew Hogg, Malta’s Surrey-born goalkeeper.
England certainly had enough of the ball to reflect that it should have been a much more emphatic scoreline but, equally, the second half also featured a slightly awkward five-minute spell when the crowd started entertaining themselves, flashing up their mobile phones in the way that people used to wave cigarette lighters at Elton John concerts. An attendance not far off 82,000 is mightily impressive given everything England have endured since they were last here, shortly before Euro 2016, but the crowd undeniably wanted more to help the healing process.
Southgate’s men knew their own superiority and perhaps that explains why they plodded through long spells while also giving the impression that if they could be bothered to take the occasion a little more seriously they might have scored a hatful. They kept the crowd waiting almost half an hour before Sturridge’s precise header gave them the lead. Alli’s goal came nine minutes later and from that point onwards it was an exercise in damage-limitation for Malta. In truth, it probably always was.
When the opposition are this limited, it is certainly difficult to form any lasting conclusions about Wayne Rooney’s capabilities as a midfielder. Jesse Lingard, winning his first cap, should be aware it is not always this easy and Joe Hart must wonder if he will ever have a more straightforward assignment.
Malta managed one shot throughout the entire game and Hart duly ticked off the 36th clean sheet of his international career, moving ahead of Gordon Banks into third in the all-time list of England shut-outs – four behind David Seaman and 30 adrift of Peter Shilton. Hart spent so long as a spectator he ran 40 yards to check on Ryan Bertrand after the hamstring injury that restricted England’s left-back to only 19 minutes.
A better time to judge Southgate’s impact will come after the game in Slovenia on Tuesday, followed by the double-header against Scotland and Spain next month, but what is clear is that he concurs with Sam Allardyce and Hodgson – though evidently not José Mourinho – that Rooney’s best position is now in a deep-lying role where he can dictate play and decorate games with showy passes to the wide positions.
Alli took up the classic No10 role, albeit that being Rooney’s shirt number, with Theo Walcott and Lingard operating on the wings in a 4-2-3-1 system. There was not, however, a great deal of width or penetration. Lingard did reasonably well but it was understandable if the crowd craved Marcus Rashford’s sense of adventure. Rashford replaced Walcott midway through the second half but England continued to play the game at three-quarter pace and Hogg had strong credentials to be recognised as the game’s outstanding performer. Malta’s goalkeeper was a little slow, perhaps, when Sturridge headed in Jordan Henderson’s cross for the first goal but he spared his team on at least half-a-dozen occasions.
Henderson was also involved in England’s second goal, breaking through midfield before Alli whipped in a right-footed shot from just inside the penalty area. Hogg saved the first effort but Alli darted forward to stab in the rebound, showing much more determination then the nearest defender, Andrei Agius, to get to the ball first.
From that stage, England might have been expected to have a lot more fun at Malta’s expense. Instead, they huffed and puffed to the end, making a comfortable win also feel like a slightly unsatisfactory one, and featuring audible boos for Rooney after one moment of carelessness.