England 2 Malta 0: True tests still to come for stand-in Southgate

England's Dele Alli celebrates scoring his side's second goal of the game wit team mate Jordan Henderson during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying match at Wembley Stadium, London.
England's Dele Alli celebrates scoring his side's second goal of the game wit team mate Jordan Henderson during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying match at Wembley Stadium, London.
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A VISIT to Wembley by a country better known for tourism than football hardly sounds the sort of fixture to have ticket touts flocking in their droves.

But there they were in the hours leading up to kick-off, sidling up to those making their way along Olympic Way and uttering, invariably through the side of the mouth, that well worn mantra, ‘Tickets for the match, buying or selling’.

England's Jesse Lingard has his header saved by Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying match at Wembley Stadium, London. (Picture: PA)

England's Jesse Lingard has his header saved by Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying match at Wembley Stadium, London. (Picture: PA)

Prices varied but one tout approached by The Yorkshire Post was asking £80 for a seat behind the goal.

This felt exorbitant a couple of hours before the game but by full-time it was off the scale. This was not a game that will live long in the memory.

Malta arrived with little ambition other than to get ten men behind the ball at every opportunity. Goalkeeper Andrew Hogg aside, they possessed all the durability of a Malteser chocolate once popped in the mouth.

That England, still smarting from a truly wretched Euro 2016 and Sam Allardyce’s self-inflicted downfall, were unable to fully exploit those weaknesses spoke volumes for how much of a rebuilding job the FA’s next permanent appointment has on his hands.

Gareth Southgate may well prove to be that man. He will be in charge of England’s three remaining fixtures of 2016 and has a great opportunity to press his claims.

But, for now, the country knows little more about the 46-year-old’s suitability in the role than it did before Saturday.

A comfortable victory was expected and that was what England delivered. The hosts dominated possession and, in a particularly one-sided first half, had enough chances to win two or three games.

This, though, would surely have been the case had Allardyce been in the home technical area and not Southgate. Wembley clashes with Scotland and Spain next month will tell us much more than a fixture that, after half-time, had the feel of a training exercise.

Still, a team can only beat what is put in front of them and England achieved just that thanks to goals from Daniel Sturridge and Dele Alli.

There were pluses and minuses all over the field. For those whose footballing glass is half full, Alli and Jesse Lingard linked up well and caused big problems through their intelligent running off the ball. The flipside of that, though, was how the duo spurned several gilt-edged opportunities during a first half that saw England enjoy 80 per cent of possession and spend lengthy spells camped in the visitors’ half.

Theo Walcott also flattered to deceive, one minute running at Malta’s backline with purpose but then the next taking totally the wrong option and causing play to break down. It was no surprise when the Arsenal man was withdrawn and replaced by Marcus Rashford, surprisingly overlooked by Southgate in favour of Sturridge.

One man who did emerge with huge credit from a low-key night was Jordan Henderson as the midfielder brought his form for Liverpool to the international stage.

Invariably faced by a wall of nine or even ten red shirts, Henderson’s eye for an opening and incisive delivery made him by far the most likely to unpick the minnows. He had a leading role in both goals and surely did enough to retain his place in Ljubljana even if Eric Dier, as expected, returns tomorrow.

Rooney, despite words of praise from Southgate, cannot say the same with the England captain again exuding unease in midfield. That said, he would have added to his 53 goal tally international football but for the agility of Hogg in the Malta goal.

Born in Kingston-upon-Thames, the 31-year-old set the tone for his own night with a fine flying save to deny Rooney in the eighth minute. He also acrobatically clawed away a Rooney free-kick early in the second half.

In between those two goal-saving efforts, Hogg also kept out a bullet header from Alli and a snapshot from Lingard.

Walcott was another left bemoaning his ill fortune at the hands of Hogg, who denied the Arsenal man in each half.

By the second of those saves, England were already two goals to the good and the game as good as over.

The opener came on 29 minutes, Henderson collecting the ball in midfield and darting forward before curling an exquisite cross that Sturridge steered into the corner of Hogg’s net with a firm header.

England’s second arrived seven minutes before the interval, Henderson again the creator with an incisive run into the penalty area that was followed by a deft pass inside to Alli.

He hit a first time shot that Hogg blocked but the ball rebounded to the Spurs man and he made no mistake second time around.

That really should have been the prelude to England going on to at least match the five-goal drubbing handed out to the Maltese by Scotland in last month’s qualifier.

Instead, Southgate’s men lost their way. Minds appeared to have subconsciously moved on to Slovenia and the second half was a non-event. By the final whistle, many of the 81,781 crowd – by far the most impressive aspect of Saturday from an England perspective – had already started the journey home.

Those who did remain offered a smattering of applause, England had been functional but no more. And certainly not worth the mark-up in ticket price that the touts had been asking before kick-off.