In the four months since the national team last trotted out at Wembley, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, the Three Lions suffered a humbling Euro 2016 exit to Iceland and Roy Hodgson’s successor Sam Allardyce lost his dream job after 67 days.
Last week’s publication of secretly-recorded footage brought his reign to an abrupt and ignominious end, with interim replacement Southgate starting his reign with a simple 2-0 win against Malta.
Overcoming a side ranked 176th in the world is hardly a yardstick with which to measure success or progress, but there were flashes of promise as the first half came to a close.
The speed of thought and feet seem to bamboozle Malta at times, with only wayward finishing and some fine goalkeeping preventing England from adding to Daniel Sturridge’s header and a Dele Alli effort before half-time.
The second half was a drab affair by comparison but Alli should have added another late on, with the overall frustration culminating with Wayne Rooney being booed by some of the Wembley crowd after missing late on.
The England captain’s place in the side and role within it dominated much of the build-up, with Southgate deciding to deploy him in central midfield rather than the attacking role preferred by Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho.
There were a few shaky early touches by Rooney, having started United’s last three matches on the bench, but the skipper tested Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg with an eighth-minute strike.
Debutant Jesse Lingard and Sturridge failed with hopeful efforts as England looked to break down a well-drilled, if limited, Malta side, with Ryan Bertrand suffering a hamstring injury in his attempt to stretch them.
Danny Rose came on and Tottenham team-mate Alli wasted a fine chance to break the deadlock soon after, with Sturridge just as guilty after failing from the follow-up.
It was a missed chance the Liverpool striker atoned for in the 29th minute after meeting Jordan Henderson’s latest fine ball with a superb header.
Rooney was fortunate to get away with a clumsy tackle shortly before the opening goal, which saw England play with renewed intensity for the remainder of the half.
Lingard was denied by the impressive Hogg having been superbly played in by Sturridge and Gary Cahill came close, before Southgate was again punching the air in joy.
Alli met a cute Henderson lay-off with a shot that Hogg parried, only for the midfielder to stretch to direct home.
Sturridge attempted to extend their lead in the seven minutes before half-time, from which England returned just as dominantly but without the same energy.
Rooney saw a free-kick tipped over the bar by Hogg, who continued to frustrate Southgate’s men when Lingard cleverly played through Theo Walcott.
It was the Arsenal attacker’s last moment of note before being replaced by Marcus Rashford, with Sturridge replaced by Jamie Vardy soon after.
Lingard and Rooney had attempts in a dull second period lit up in the 81st minute by Andrei Agius showing great technique to aim a volley at Joe Hart’s near post, forcing the England goalkeeper into action for the first time.
Alli had a chance to add extra gloss to the scoreline with five minutes remaining, yet could only turn Rashford’s low cross over under pressure.
The frustration of failing to net a second-half goal saw Rooney come under focus, with boos echoing around those left inside Wembley when he curled over.