Am I the only person that doesn’t consider a 2-0 victory against Malta to be anything special? I totally appreciate that a win is a win, but only putting in 2 goals against a country who are ranked 176th in the world is- on paper- a pretty humble victory. However, let’s just stop to take a minute here to appreciate a few things about the current England situation. And let us remind ourselves that after recent shocks, it could have been a lot worse.
Here is a team in transition. They are without a permanent manager, and whilst they no doubt have respect for a man like Gareth Southgate, he hasn’t been offered the job on a full time basis and hasn’t made it public that he wants it, either. Here, too, was a Malta team that were all fired up. “The Malta Messi”- former Coventry City strike Michael Mifsud- spoke to the press and said that he truly believed a ‘miracle could happen’. They believed they could cause an upset, and Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg had the game of his career, heroically denying England in a second half that certainly should have seen The Three Lions turn the screw and finish the match in style. Here too were a few debutants. Jesse Lingard deputised on the left wing, and he looked enthusiastic if a little raw. He is far from the finished product but this is a young England team, and if you couple that with an experienced spine, a future can be built around with squad for at least the next decade of international football.
There are, of course, some positives to be focussed on. The defensive display was a solid one, although if I’m being honest, Malta aren’t exactly the most challenging of teams. Joe Hart had very little to do- in fact he may as well have stayed in Turin for all of the work he had to do during this match. Despite all of this possession and bluster, though, England only scored twice. This, of course, is a recognisable problem. It was exactly the problem they had in both of their recent matches against Slovakia. The team did score, and they never looked in trouble, but 2-0 is still not that impressive. All things considered, though, can it really be seen that critically? During the Euros, we looked lacklustre against Slovakia, with a 0-0 frankly not good enough for a team pushing to win their group. Against Wales, it had taken a goal from our rivals to kick us into action, and even then we got a little lucky with a late, late goal from Daniel Sturridge, which 9 times out of 10 would have been easily saved had it not been for a fortunate deflection. In the knock out stages, we were swept aside by an Iceland team who, despite their underdog status, should still have been nothing but a bump in the road on our journey to the next round. Iceland looked fantastic, take nothing away from them, but England had also looked flat and devoid of ideas. Iceland deservedly went through. We went home.
So when you consider that upset, this victory must come as a breath of fresh air. Southgate’s England weren’t the swashbuckling masters they could be, but they got the job done. That’s more than can be said for the group of men who took to the field in France against Iceland. Besides, Malta aren’t San Marino. They boast some good players, an organised squad, and they have a system that suits the limited abilities of their players. Not so long ago, Kevin Keegan’s England team struggled to a 2-1 victory against Malta and actually made things a lot more difficult than the team did in this performance.
Much has been made of Wayne Rooney’s fall from grace recently. Frankly, I feel that the booing from the England fans was out of order. Rooney has lost a yard of pace, and he himself is wise enough to acknowledge that. He will be the first to admit that whilst he splayed the ball about classily, he never found that killer link up play. It was all a little easy, as it should be against a team like Malta. But shouldn’t a player of his calibre be pushing himself to his best when representing his country regardless of the opposition? Let us not forget, though, that Rooney has been a brilliant servant to our national team. He is the highest capped outfield player, he has scored more goals than any other England player, and he has been one of the few players to come out of even the most crippling defeats with his reputation intact. He has worked hard for the team. He has played with passion. He has worn the shirt with pride. Not every player can say that. But he has one bad match- and not even a bad match, just one that was below par- and suddenly he is being booed and condemned. If this is the end of his international career, let us not forget that he has done us a great service in the England shirt.
Tonight England are playing Slovenia in another World Cup qualifier group match. It’s fair to say that they’re more of a threat than Malta, so the match will be a much better way to assess the team under the leadership of Gareth Southgate.