Sometimes it pays to look not at the field but at the facts. England are through to the finals of next summer’s European Championships in Germany as group winners and look set to be one of the seeded nations.

Mission accomplished from that point of view for Gareth Southgate and his team. They have dominated their qualifying group from the moment they beat Italy in Naples back in March. It has been a campaign to underline their status as one of the favourites for Euro 2024.

This, though, was a rather moribund performance against a nation that has lost every single one of its qualifying games. Southgate chose a team that was some way from what we would call his first XI. Still, they should have been better than this. Given the quality the England manager has at his disposal, there is no such thing as an under-strength team.

They missed the injured Jude Bellingham, though, and they lacked their usual penetration from full back. Trent Alexander-Arnold was the best player on the field from his roaming midfield position but there were too few others that reached his level.

Ahead early through an own goal from Enrico Pepe, England didn’t actually manage a shot on target of their own until we had been playing for an hour.

England beat Malta 2-0 at Wembley on Friday in their penultimate Euro 2024 qualifying clash

England beat Malta 2-0 at Wembley on Friday in their penultimate Euro 2024 qualifying clash

England beat Malta 2-0 at Wembley on Friday in their penultimate Euro 2024 qualifying clash 

England went ahead after an unfortunate own goal from Malta defender Enrico Pepe (No 13)

England went ahead after an unfortunate own goal from Malta defender Enrico Pepe (No 13)

England went ahead after an unfortunate own goal from Malta defender Enrico Pepe (No 13)

Harry Kane made it 2-0 late on after he finished off a fine team move from the Three Lions

Harry Kane made it 2-0 late on after he finished off a fine team move from the Three Lions

Harry Kane made it 2-0 late on after he finished off a fine team move from the Three Lions 

It was the eighth successive game that the in-form Bayern Munich striker had scored in

It was the eighth successive game that the in-form Bayern Munich striker had scored in

It was the eighth successive game that the in-form Bayern Munich striker had scored in 

Harry Kane should have been awarded a penalty in the 29th minute but was for some reason booked for diving — VAR didn’t intervene — and it was not until the captain rounded off a good right-sided move in the 75th minute that England put daylight between themselves and an opponent from an island with a population equivalent to a fifth of the size of Greater Manchester.

There was a second-half debut for Cole Palmer which lifted the spirits a little. One for the future, there. Palmer beat a man with his first touch but on the whole this was a night of paper aeroplanes and Mexican waves, a night to look not so much at a tepid 96-minute performance but a campaign that has, ultimately, placed England exactly where they need to be.

Malta threatened first but that was as good as got for them, in the first half at least. Teddy Teuma, of Reims in France, drove low and hard towards Jordan Pickford’s left-hand post from the edge of the penalty area and only missed by a foot or so.

The visiting team were better than they had been when providing only token resistance to England in losing 4-0 at home back in June. Malta were more competitive here, more assertive.

Peculiarly, however, they gave the first goal to England in the same way they did back in early summer and at exactly the same stage of the game. An own goal in the eighth minute.

It was a sharp England move down the left that caused panic here at Wembley. Phil Foden, firmly in Southgate’s starting eleven these days, moved on to a slick ball from Marc Guehi and accelerated past his man in to the penalty area. His cutback was designed to have Kane as its recipient but the ball was never allowed to reach the England captain, striking Pepe on the knee and looping painfully in to the goal via a hand from goalkeeper Henry Bonello.

It was a goal rather in keeping with the occasion. A little low key. Foden didn’t even see fit to celebrate properly. Own goals can feel a little like that.

England were not short of motivation or drive, though. Set up to play with Alexander-Arnold next to Jordan Henderson as a midfield pair, the Liverpool full-back — wearing No 10 — was given licence to push forward when England were in possession, which was most of the time.

Alexander-Arnold certainly suits the role against modest opponents. He was superb as England tore apart North Macedonia at Old Trafford at the end of last season and it will be intriguing to see if and when he is given the opportunity to play there against a better team.

However, it was an underwhelming display from Gareth Southgate's side at Wembley

However, it was an underwhelming display from Gareth Southgate's side at Wembley

However, it was an underwhelming display from Gareth Southgate’s side at Wembley

Kane was then booked for diving in the first half despite being clipped by Henry Bonello

Kane was then booked for diving in the first half despite being clipped by Henry Bonello

Kane was then booked for diving in the first half despite being clipped by Henry Bonello

Trent Alexander-Arnold was given another opportunity to feature in a midfield role for England

Trent Alexander-Arnold was given another opportunity to feature in a midfield role for England

Trent Alexander-Arnold was given another opportunity to feature in a midfield role for England

Here he passed the ball beautifully both long and short. One diagonal pass from right to left to Kane was delivered as if by laser.

In terms of chances, though, England struggled a little. Kane may have had a penalty when Bonello seemed to bring him down in the 29th minute only to be booked for diving. He certainly didn’t go over on purpose. The only debating point was whether Bonello made heavy contact.

England enjoyed the possession, as we would have expected. They missed the cleverness of the injured Jude Bellingham, however, while over the left side Marcus Rashford was not initially able to find space to use his pace against his full back.

Changes did come at half-time but only two as Kyle Walker and Bukayo Saka were introduced to give England’s right side a different look.

England did need to step things up, if not for purposes of qualification then certainly for the purposes of entertainment. There was a full house here and as the game approached the hour-mark Southgate’s team had not managed a shot on target. The own goal didn’t count.

Another lovely pass from Alexander-Arnold, this time inside the Malta left back, did present Saka with an opportunity but his shot was deflected wide. Rashford also had a chance within a minute only to overrun the ball before Alexander-Arnold and Rashford went for the same ball 25 yards from goal and managed to clatter each other to the ground.

Shortly after that Palmer was given his first England appearance and his first involvement was to take the ball, accelerate and beat a man in red. It is exactly that kind of confident football — always played on the front foot — for Chelsea that earned the 21-year-old his elevation into Southgate’s senior squad in the first place.

Cole Palmer was introduced off the bench in the second half for his international debut

Cole Palmer was introduced off the bench in the second half for his international debut

Cole Palmer was introduced off the bench in the second half for his international debut

Declan Rice was unfortunate to have a fine individual goal ruled out by VAR for offside late on

Declan Rice was unfortunate to have a fine individual goal ruled out by VAR for offside late on

Declan Rice was unfortunate to have a fine individual goal ruled out by VAR for offside late on

Wembley had paid an emotional tribute to the late Sir Bobby Charlton ahead of kick off

Wembley had paid an emotional tribute to the late Sir Bobby Charlton ahead of kick off

Wembley had paid an emotional tribute to the late Sir Bobby Charlton ahead of kick off

A shot on target soon followed. You could argue it was an hour overdue. A move down the right saw Saka involved and when the ball broke, Alexander-Arnold volleyed the ball low and firmly in to Bonello’s chest.

Alexander-Arnold had by now emerged as England’s best player by a distance. His use of the ball had been excellent all night.

It’s worth remembering that a year ago, as England prepared for their first game of the World Cup in Qatar, that Alexander-Arnold was at home, injured but also seemingly on the fringes of Southgate’s thoughts. Quite a lot has changed in twelve months, for Alexander-Arnold and indeed his manager.

England scored again with 15 minutes left and it was a good goal. Kyle Walker — another substitute — linked well with Manchester City team-mate Foden and when Saka was played in to space, he was able to pull the ball back for Kane to score.

The ball was in the net again within a minute, as Wembley finally came to life. This was a super goal, Rice running from deep to curl the ball in to the corner from the edge of the area.

Sadly, the same VAR officials that had chosen not to intervene when Kane was booked earlier on were quick to point out he was standing in an offside position as the ball flew past him here.

Source: | This article originally belongs to Daily Mail

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