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Gareth Southgate praised Trent Alexander-Arnold for buying into England’s midfield experiment and showing what he was capable of in the comfortable win away to Malta.
The 24-year-old may be an established star at Liverpool but he has often flattered to deceive with the national team, with intense competition at right-back restricting opportunities.
Alexander-Arnold struggled in a midfield against Andorra when Southgate tried him there in September 2021, but things worked far better in Malta as he won just his 19th cap on Friday evening.
The England star had a hand in all three first-half goals, including curling home superbly either side of Ferdinando Apap’s own goal and a Harry Kane penalty.
Substitute Callum Wilson completed a 4-0 win with a spot-kick of his own but this was Alexander-Arnold’s night as Southgate’s side continued their winning start to Euro 2024 qualification.
“Inevitably a lot of what happens is going to be a little bit dependent on his club,” the England boss said.
“The fact that he’s been playing partly in there with the ball, albeit a bit deeper, I think has helped his transition tonight.
“What was pleasing tonight, he’s getting used to receiving in tight areas with his back to goal, with players behind him.
“Whereas he’s used to receiving on the touchline, with the play in front of him, and he was very comfortable doing that.
“Look, I’ve got no questions in my head he can do it. It’s just learning some nuances of the role, without the ball especially very different for him.
“But he’s very keen to do it. He’s enjoyed the sort of project, if you like.
“We talked about it about four weeks ago on the phone, and I think he’s been excited by it and, yeah, he showed exactly what we think he could be capable of. He gives us something different to our other midfield players.”
This was a far more simple night for England compared to their last trip to Malta, when a drab, goalless first half against the limited hosts saw the travelling support turn on the team.
Southgate’s side have come a long way in the six intervening years and there was never any danger of their 100 per cent Euro 2024 qualification record slipping in their third Group C match.
“Of course we know we have the quality to win the games, but it’s about your mentality then and I thought that was excellent right from the start,” Southgate said.
“We tried to balance looking at a few things with some experienced players that give you leadership on the pitch and set the tone. That’s how they’ve trained all week.
“In particular when we lost the ball, the reaction to winning it back was a sign that the team were in a good place mentally.
“Then of course some really good quality for the first couple of goals, especially, so yeah, we’ve made it look fairly straightforward.
We tried to balance looking at a few things with some experienced players that give you leadership on the pitch and set the tone
“That, as we know from last time, here isn’t always the case!
“We’ve been able to look at a few things, we’ve been able to get players on, we’ve been able to get some players off, so very pleased with the night.”
England now turn their attention to Monday’s home game North Macedonia after preventing Malta – ranked 172nd in the world – from having a shot in their box, never mind an attempt on goal.
Head coach Michele Marcolini said: “I think that we don’t shoot on goal because England for 90 minutes pressed very high and didn’t give us the chance to play easy. Never, never.
“To be honest, the difference physically was clear. To build the action easily, we cannot, to be honest.
“We are sorry about that but at the end we have to be honest and say that this kind of match for us with this kind of behaviour from the opponent it’s very tough.
“When you play with this difference between the teams, you have to hope that the opponent comes here a little bit calmer or they take the match easily.
“But this didn’t happen today because England has an amazing attitude on the pitch from the first minute until the end.”
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