With Sam Allardyce’s brief tenure coming to a rather abrupt and controversial end, Gareth Southgate took the reigns on Saturday as England faced Malta in a World Cup Qualifier at Wembley Stadium. The caretaker manager’s first lineup did include a few surprises, but the Three Lions recorded a routine victory in front of over 80,000 supporters. On a day where the opposition goalkeeper was in inspired form, the hosts had to settle for a 2-0 win as Daniel Sturridge and Dele Alli both found the net to seal three points.
On the slick Wembley turf, England looked to control proceedings from the outset and possession was kept with real composure. Malta attempted to restrict the space with a packed midfield, but the hosts almost found the breakthrough on eight minutes as Wayne Rooney forced Andrew Hogg into a flying save. Just four minutes later, a low Ryan Bertrand cross was parried into a dangerous area. Jesse Lingard then shanked an effort way off target from the edge of the box after the ball rolled invitingly into his path.
With 20 minutes on the clock, a perfectly weighted lofted pass from Jordan Henderson found Lingard just inside the area but he couldn’t hit the target after getting the better of his marker. As the pressure continued to build, Dele Alli called Hogg into a reaction save during the next attack after Henderson found him unmarked in the area. The ball then fell rather fortuitously to Daniel Sturridge but the Liverpool striker couldn’t adjust his body to contact cleanly with the follow-up.
In the 29th minute, Sturridge made amends as he fired England into the lead. Another brilliant Henderson delivery picked out the forward and he made no mistakes with the finish as he caressed a beautiful header into the far corner. Only four minutes later, Lingard almost doubled the lead with a downwards header of his own, but the Malta keeper thwarted him smartly. England did deservedly stretch their advantage on 38 minutes, however, as neat build-up eventually led to Alli firing a finish past Hogg who did well to save initially.
With a two-goal advantage already intact, Southgate’s men came out in the second period looking to add to their goal scoring tally. The first meaningful effort didn’t come about until the 53rd minute, however, as Rooney saw a dipping free kick tipped over the bar by the impressive Maltese goalkeeper. With controlled passing play still being the elected method of attack for the Three Lions, the visitors dropped into a deeper position in attempt to nullify the threat of the home front line.
The next probing forward move opened up the Malta defence on 64 minutes as Lingard carried the ball into a dangerous position. His tidy pass then found Theo Walcott in the area but he was denied by a sharp stop. The aforementioned player then went close with 69 minutes played as he shaped a swerving shot wide following a quickly taken Rooney free kick. Action soon began to slow down as the game petered out and the atmosphere around the stadium lessened as a result.
Supporters would have been hoping that the introduction of Marcus Rashford and Jamie Vardy would inject some pace back into proceedings, but it didn’t alter the tempo immediately. With 81 minutes on the clock, it was instead Malta who went close but Joe Hart pushed the ball away from goal with his first save of the evening. The best chance of the half fell England’s way with five minutes to play, but Alli somehow failed to convert Rashford’s low cross after evading his marker.
It was always expected to be a one-sided affair, but I was impressed with some of the football England played. Although I respect that Malta aren’t exactly footballing heavyweights, you still have to beat what is put in front of you. Having Wayne Rooney in that deeper role pulling the strings suits us as it allows the more expressive attacking players to work their magic in the final third. Daniel Sturridge, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli all proved to be a constant threat throughout and the away defence struggled to combat their directness.
Similarly to every time we come up against a ‘smaller’ nation, we were required to remain patient in order to break through the opposition defence. The midfield dictated play brilliantly and we were very efficient in possession. In the opening 30 minutes we perhaps didn’t create enough, but the tempo vastly increased from that point on and chances started to come in number. If it wasn’t for a few high quality saves from Andrew Hogg, the scoreline could have been much healthier.
After a fairly turbulent week off the field, it was just important that the players remained focused and they can be pleased with their application. The second period was always going to be relatively dull as Malta dropped into damage limitation mode, but we saw out the game in a professional manner. Movement in front of the midfield seemed to be less frequent, however, and that was a disappointment. In regards to our defence, they remained untroubled throughout so it is difficult to judge the performance in that aspect.
We now go into Tuesday’s game versus Slovenia with a perfect record so far and that should fill us with confidence. With a new era now taking shape after the disappointment of Euro 2016, we need to get behind Southgate and the players donning the famous white strip. A lot of talented youngsters are at our disposal and I’m confident that if we play a brand of football that suits them, we can be successful. It will be interesting to see how we cope against stronger opposition.
Joe Hart – 7
Kyle Walker – 7
Ryan Bertrand – 7
Jordan Henderson – 9
Gary Cahill – 7
John Stones – 7
Theo Walcott – 6
Dele Alli – 7
Daniel Sturridge – 7
Wayne Rooney – 8
Jesse Lingard – 8
Danny Rose – 7
Marcus Rashford – 6
Jamie Vardy – 6
England: Hart, Walker, Bertrand (Rose 19), Henderson, Cahill, Stones, Walcott (Rashford 68), Alli, Sturridge (Vardy 74), Rooney (C), Lingard.
Unused Substitutes: Forster, Smalling, Dier, Keane, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Antonio, Townsend, Heaton.
Malta: Hogg, Sciberras, Agius, Borg, Fenech, Schembri (C) (R. Muscat 86), Camilleri, Kristensen, Effiong (Mifsud 76), Z. Muscat, A. Muscat.
Unused Substitutes: Zerafa, Failla, Pisani, Bonello, Farrugia, Scerri, Scicluna.