Gareth Southgate's trial run as interim manager starts with strict minimum

Malta put 10 men behind the wall and England played at a pace that was hypnotically slow at times, scoring twice in the first half.

Published: 09th October 2016 11:58 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th October 2016 11:58 AM   |  A+A-

Gareth_Southgate_AP

England’s caretaker manager Gareth Southgate points across the pitch during the World Cup Group F qualifying soccer match between England and Malta (Photo|AP)

By The Sunday Telegraph

 

England: 2 (Sturridge 29, Alli 38)
Malta: 0


It is World Cup qualifiers such as these at Wembley when England pound grimly on the door of vastly inferior opposition that makes one wonder if it is not the case that, for many months of the two-year cycle, the juicier stuff at the Football Association takes place away from the pitch.


Here were the England team returning to Wembley for the first since the defenestration of Sam Allardyce, to a place where things were much more straightforward for 90 minutes than they have been for the last two weeks at the FA. 


Malta put 10 men behind the wall and England played at a pace that was hypnotically slow at times, scoring twice in the first half.


For Gareth Southgate and the FA, even a match as mediocre as this was some respite from the storm that has gathered around the organisation since The Daily Telegraph's investigation into football prompted Allardyce's departure. 


There was no introduction of Southgate, officially the interim manager, to the Wembley crowd and only the briefest mention of the change, and the Telegraph's part in it in the matchday programme.
In the hierarchy of minnows, Malta are just ahead of the true lightweights of the Uefa division, the likes of San Marino, Andorra and Gibraltar, and they seemed to have learnt a lesson from the 5-1 hammering from Scotland last month. 


Better organised and much fitter than the usual last seeded teams in qualifying groups, Malta were able to keep the scoreline to a very respectable two goals.


Those came from Daniel Sturridge and Dele Alli in a first half that was just as notable for a wild Rooney challenge on Andre Schembri, the Malta captain, that could quite easily have seen the England captain dismissed.


What an end to the week that would have been for the new England manager but Rooney escaped without even a booking from the Swedish referee Stefan Johannesson and had another one of those midfield performances that fail to convince.


The most remarkable aspect of all was surely that 81,781 people turned  up to watch this game, just more evidence that however error-prone and self-destructive senior officials at the FA prove to be, however poor the tournament performance, and however unremarkable the opposition - the crowds keep coming. 


If there is an appetite to see England in this kind of state, their first game at Wembley since the Iceland defeat at Euro 2016, then imagine what a successful side could expect.


There was a decent performance from Jordan Henderson, who was voted man of the match and had a key role in both the goals. Southgate also sent on Marcus Rashford and Jamie Vardy in the latter stages but he resisted the temptation to mess about with the  balance of his team, keeping a four-man defence despite the fact that Joe Hart had just one save to make all game.

The only surprise in Southgate's  line-up was an international debut for Jesse Lingard, a player who did the former Under-21s manager good  service when he was in his squad for the European Championship in that age group last year. The Manchester United man was on the left side and twice had chances to mark his start with a goal.


The nation who are equal 176th with Laos in the Fifa rankings lined up with a five-man defence and a further four in midfield. 

England's tempo was predictably slow and while Rooney was in the four-man line behind striker Sturridge it was Henderson, just behind the two central midfielders, who played the most ambitious passes. Henderson crossed the ball for Alli on 22 minutes who had his header saved.


It was Henderson's ball that picked out Sturridge in the area for the first goal. There was no pace on the cross but Sturridge was able to direct his header beyond the Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg whose reaction was not as quick as his team-mates might have hoped.


The Liverpool striker was in one of those moods of his when passing the ball is the last thing on his mind and he dribbled past opponents and lashed in shots from all angles. He did cross the ball for Lingard to head at goal on 33 minutes but Hogg managed to save that one.


The second goal came when Henderson advanced into the area  and pinched the ball from Sturridge, who was doing what Sturridge does, and driving forward the Liverpool  captain presented it to Alli instead. Alli's first shot was saved and he managed to get a toe to the rebound to put it away.


Southgate had lost Ryan Bertrand to what looked like a groin strain early in the game and replaced him with Danny Rose.  As for Rooney, he was rather fortunate to stay on the pitch after a tackle on Schembri which saw him take the ball and then follow through hard on to the leg on his opponent with what looked like excessive force.


There was a chance after the break for Theo Walcott, when he was played in by Lingard on 64 minutes for a shot which Hogg saved.  Alli missed from close range when Rashford whipped a ball across from the right and the game ended with a murmur of indifference from the home crowd. 


The job had been done as everyone expected it would be but it will not be until Southgate's side travel to Slovenia for the game on Tuesday that we will see how this new manager approaches a more serious challenge.


Then he will be obliged to come up with a plan that demonstrates what kind of manager he wants to be - but even then it will be the games against Scotland and then Spain that prove a bigger test. 
This was, in the circumstances, a decent start. England can only beat the opposition put in front of them, as the old saying goes, and it should be said that those opposition can be pretty uninspiring at times.

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