England laboured to an uninspiring 2-0 win over Malta at Wembley on Friday, with only a late Harry Kane goal adding gloss to an otherwise poor performance.
Gareth Southgate’s side had been hit by a series of injuries in the build-up to the European Championship Qualifier dead-rubber but this was a terrible display from a team with ambitions of winning the tournament in Germany next summer.
Qualification may have already been assured and top spot in Group C was sealed but this performance won’t have impressed anyone questioning this team’s credentials of going all the way at the Euros.
When these sides met in June, a Malta own goal eight minutes into the match had given England the platform for a commanding 4-0 away win. Incredibly Enrico Pepe repeated the gift exactly eight minutes into this contest – but any thought the floodgates would open faded as Southgate’s disjointed players struggled to create any major chances against a country ranked 171st in the world.
Trent Alexander-Arnold had his side’s first shot 39 minutes into the game. He was then the first to hit the target on 64 minutes. The near-capacity crowd, arriving at Wembley in expectation of a big win, were starved of excitement until subs Kyle Walker and Bukayo Saka linked up with the standout Phil Foden and Kane to double the advantage 15 minutes from time.
There was an incredulous decision to book Kane for diving when he was brought down by Malta goalkeeper Henry Bonello in the first half and the England captain was spotted to be in an offside position by VAR when Declan Rice lashed in what would have been a third. But rather than injustice, it will be England’s inability to dominate their opponents which will concern Southgate.
He takes his side to North Macedonia on Monday aiming to sign off this campaign by wrapping up an almost-certain place in Pot 1 for the Euro 2024 draw, which takes place later this month. He will also hope for a more encouraging performance than this disappointing effort.
How England got over the line against Malta
England player ratings
England: Pickford (6), Tomori (5), Maguire (5), Guehi (6), Trippier (6), Alexander-Arnold (7), Gallagher (5), Henderson (6), Foden (7), Rashford (6), Kane (7).
Subs:Saka (7), Walker (7), Rice (6), Palmer (6).
Player of the match: Phil Foden
There was a buzz among England supporters ahead of the game, arriving in hope of seeing a Friday night goal-fest. By the end of the game they were booing the fourth official for adding six more minutes on.
- Fikayo Tomori started at left-back in a back four, which saw Marc Guehi partner Harry Maguire at centre-back. Trent Alexander-Arnold began in midfield alongside Conor Gallagher and Jordan Henderson, with Phil Foden and Marcus Rashford on the flanks of the attack, either side of captain Harry Kane.
It could have been a lot worse, had Teddy Teuma’s drive fizzed inside the post rather than just past it 29 seconds in after Conor Gallagher gave the ball away. It was shades of San Marino’s Davide Gualtieri in 1993.
Bobby Charlton remembered
There was a touching tribute to Sir Bobby Charlton before kick-off, with the England World Cup winner’s highlights on the international stage shown on the big screen before a minute’s applause for a player who won 106 caps for his country.
Pepe’s own goal from Foden’s cutback quietened any suggestion of a shock – but hardly sparked England into life. It was a forgettable first-half from the hosts.
Harry Maguire’s poor pass out allowed Paul Mbong to have a go from distance and England still hadn’t had a clear-cut shot when Kane was denied a blatant penalty and booked for simulation when he was caught by goalkeeper Bonello.
A tame Maguire header from a corner was recorded as an England shot on 25 minutes but the Three Lions’ first real shot in anger didn’t arrive until six minutes before the break – and Alexander-Arnold blazed it way over the bar. It summed up England’s performance. Miles off it.
Walker and Saka were sent on at half-time and would later combine for England’s second – but the initial improvement from Southgate’s rearranged side was marginal.
Rashford – disconnected in the first-half – produced some threatening individual moments but his lack of sharpness was apparent and when he crashed painfully into Alexander-Arnold it epitomised England’s lack of cohesion. He was forced off because of the blow, with Cole Palmer making his debut in his place; Jordan Henderson was booed off.
Alexander-Arnold finally landed the match’s first shot on target on 64 minutes but Kane found the net soon after when England finally showed the passing quality they usually display in the final third.
It looked like the wheels were coming off for Malta when Rice lashed in another shortly after the re-start but VAR rightly called offside and they regathered themselves to get to the final whistle with a commendable result and performance. Their hosts will reflect on the game very differently.
England’s final Euro 2024 Qualifier is away to North Macedonia on Monday – kick-off 7.45pm.