Tuesday 12 November 2019

Late goals fail to stop dismal England proving there are no easy games to watch in international football

England’s Harry Kane celebrates scoring their first goal Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine
England’s Harry Kane celebrates scoring their first goal Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine

Miguel Delaney

On the evidence of this, at least, there are no easy games to watch in international football.

This 4-0 England win over Malta actually gave Gareth Southgate his first competitive away win and inched the side ever closer to inevitable World Cup qualification but there was little to celebrate in any of that because the football had been so dismally turgid.

Before Harry Kane brought things back to predictable normality by scoring the first goal of the game since it was now the 1 September, that turgid football had threatened to at least result in something sensational, as there felt a genuine chance Malta could get something out of the game.

The surreality and grimly subdued feel of the play was bizarrely emphasised by ‘Candle in the Wind’ getting played at half-time, but the most notable noise from off the pitch was the 6,000 or so travelling fans booing and ironically cheering England before they finally got the second goal of the game.

It wouldn’t exactly have fed the positive atmosphere that Southgate has been trying to foster, but then there was so little to be positive about with this performance until the late flurry.

England had actually started the game as if they would strip Malta for parts, and it did look like they could get way beyond the smaller nation's recent average of conceding just under three goals per game in their last 10 World Cup qualifiers.

Southgate’s side had enough chances to better that in the first 10 minutes alone. As early as the first 30 seconds, Raheem Sterling wasted a chance after Harry Kane should have admittedly shot, before the Spurs striker forced a brilliant save from Andre Hogg with a close-range header and then failed to control a promising cut-back from Kyle Walker. 
It seemed at that point that the levy was about to break, only for the waves to suddenly stop.

With Malta resolutely sticking to the only type of game plan a country of such limited numbers realistically can, by constantly sticking eight or nine men behind the ball, they limited England to… well, pretty much nothing all.

Southgate’s side could be forgiven for getting frustrated against such a congested amassed backline, but not for the damning lack of imagination. It also begged the question as to why he chose a two-man midfield of one runner in Jordan Henderson and one holder in Jake Livermore, against a side that there was no real need to defend against.

And that still led to one of those odd situations in such games when moment of blind panic seemed to afflict England, as an Andre Schembri ball forward almost caught that otherwise untroubled defence out.

There was no panic at the other end by that point, or much happening at all, as emphasised when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was given an ironic ovation for offering a rare piece of skill in this game by turning smartly and getting a shot off.

The half-time whistle immediately followed, as did a lot of boos from the away fans.

All of England’s attackers had been underwhelming, but Sterling was particularly underperforming, having miscontrolled a few passes and generally just struggled to get going. Marcus Rashford came on, but Malta were actually only stepping up. Mere moments after half-time, Schembri had another moment of danger, as he flashed a long-range volley inches wide of a stranded Joe Hart’s goal.

It was just at the stage that the match threatened to get really surreal and offer a proper surprise that normal service was resumed. In every sense. It was no longer August, so Kane was no longer missing chances.

On 53 minutes, after Dele Alli had risen above so many of his teammates to at last show a bit of poise in the box to delay a pass for Kane, the Spurs striker smashed the ball into the net. Since it was the 1 September, he was soon on the hunt for a second, and one long-range shot was hit so powerfully that it saw Hogg struggle to clasp it away from goal.

And yet, as Schembri still threatened, it still felt like England needed a second to be certain. Against Malta.

They finally got it on 85 minutes, as Ryan Bertrand hammered home a shot from long range to get his first goal for England before substitute Danny Welbeck fired in a third and Kane a fourth as Malta tired. The home side hadn't been able to produce any more.

England had their biggest win in two years - and that was exactly how long this match felt.

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