England underwhelmed as they took the handbrake off against Malta but Gareth Southgate must now leave his comfort zone because this Three Lions team should believe they can win the Euros
- England beat Malta 2-0 at Wembley on Friday in a flat qualifying performance
- Gareth Southgate must now let his players play with freedom ahead of the Euros
- England will struggle to win a trophy with Kalvin Phillips – It’s All Kicking Off
On the weekend of the glitz and blurred glamour of Formula One in Las Vegas, the fastest thing at Wembley were some paper aeroplanes and supporters accelerating towards the exit. Come full-time, there were more folk in the nearest tube station than the stadium.
Gareth Southgate has done a fine job as England manager. Capacity crowds, at least at kick-off, bear testament to that. But that his seven-year reign is now bookended by a pair of 2-0 wins over Malta does somewhat capture the frustration regarding his caution.
On Friday night, Southgate pushed back his self-imposed speed limit, playing with one holding midfield player instead of two.
The handbrake was off – well, as much as it can be in a team that includes Jordan Henderson – but his players found reverse. Formula One? Baby formula and some shut-eye, more like. Not until the 64th minute of a joyless encounter did they record a shot on target.
It was fair when Southgate offered mitigation afterwards. England, when it comes to excitement, have become victims of their own success. Beyond tournament football, there is close to no jeopardy to the games they play. His players, he said, entered self-preservation mode during a busy period at domestic level.
Gareth Southgate finally took the handbrake off when England played Malta at Wembley on Friday
Harry Kane scored England’s only direct goal after Malta gave the hosts the lead with an own goal earlier in the game
The challenge for this Three Lions squad is to leave their comfort zone behind
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But you still left Wembley wondering if this is just England. It was not the first time they have underwhelmed against underwhelming opposition. Also, for all bar Jordan Pickford and Harry Kane, this remained an audition ahead of Euro 2024.
So why did too many of them creep about in the shadows, rather than taking centre stage? Is that the mindset that has permeated Southgate’s group?
The worry would be that, despite the manager’s claims to the contrary, you cannot suddenly discover a sense of adventure when the sun is shining in Germany next summer.
Not when prudence has been the default setting. Muscle memory is key in elite sport, a familiarisation with the technical, tactical and mental aspects of your game. But have England, under Southgate, pushed themselves far enough?
The overriding reason they have not yet won a trophy has been a failure to convert winning positions – Croatia (World Cup 2018) and Italy (Euro 2020), two early leads lost when attempting to consolidate their advantage.
Even the 2022 World Cup quarter-final against France felt like an opportunity missed at 1-1 in the second half.
Yes, putting seven past Malta would not have been massively informative with regards the above, but it would have done no harm, especially in terms of belief. Because this team should believe they can win Euro 2024.
The one more practical concern to emerge from Friday was that, without Jude Bellingham, England lack a game-changer from the centre of midfield.
Southgate’s England team full of stars should believe they can win Euro 2024
Without Jude Bellingham, England lack a game-changer from the centre of midfield
Trent Alexander-Arnold did well, but it said much that his good work came to nothing. That would have been different had he been threading passes through the lines to Bellingham.
England’s status as second favourites for the tournament, then, feels fragile. Fragile because of a reliance on the likes of Bellingham and Kane to be at their very best, and fragile because you wonder if they really believe they can win it.
That was the take-away from Malta, of a team in a comfort zone, going through the motions of a final home qualifier. To a degree, that is understandable. The challenge, however, is to leave that comfort zone behind.
If qualifying is the starting grid, they have several gears to work through before you’d be confident of them finally making it over the finish line.
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