England waste chance to entertain on dour night at Wembley against Malta

Southgate saw his side labour to win over Malta on Friday night (The FA via Getty Images)
Southgate saw his side labour to win over Malta on Friday night (The FA via Getty Images)

What should have been an opportunity for England to put on a show for a sell-out home crowd was instead a dismal advert for international football.

A laboured and soporific 2-0 win over Malta will go a long way to guaranteeing England a place among the top seeds at next summer's European Championship but was a wasted chance to entertain a young Wembley audience and for Gareth Southgate to experiment.

England had already booked their place in Germany and, much as Southgate insisted publicly -- and to his players -- that this month's internationals remained important, in reality the visit of Malta was both a dead-rubber and a foregone conclusion.

England, though, never got going and it took until the 75th-minute for Harry Kane's goal to finally kill off a tiring Malta, who had the better chances of the first half.

Just as they did in the reverse fixture in June, England led through an own goal in the eighth minute when Enrico Pepe turned Phil Foden's cross into his own net following a sublime first touch from the Manchester City winger.

Foden's sublime touch helped force through the first goal (REUTERS)
Foden's sublime touch helped force through the first goal (REUTERS)

It was to be the only moment of quality in a dour opening period, in which Wembley resorted to a Mexican wave and the paper aeroplanes rained down from the upper tiers long before the interval.

England went in at the break having failed to register a single shot on target at home for the first time since November 2017 -- a situation which did not change until Trent Alexander-Arnold, who started at No.10, finally tested the Malta goalkeeper in the 64th-minute.

Aside from the three points, Alexander-Arnold -- busy and determined to make things happen -- was the only takeaway from the night for Southgate, although he will need to be tested in midfield against a serious opposition if it can be considered at option at the finals.

It was telling that the manager had to call for the cavalry at the break, with Bukayo Saka and Kyle Walker replacing stand-in left-back Fikayo Tomori and Conor Gallagher, and Declan Rice and debutant Cole Palmer also coming on in the second half.

Southgate will point out that his side were denied a stonewall penalty in the first half when Kane was caught by goalkeeper Henry Bonello and booked for diving -- a baffling decision which was not overruled by the linesman or VAR.

Marcus Rashford was also unfortunate to be denied a spot-kick, while Rice thought he had made it 3-0 shortly after Kane doubled England's lead with a close-range finish.

Job done: Kane scored - but England were poor (AFP via Getty Images)
Job done: Kane scored - but England were poor (AFP via Getty Images)

The Arsenal's midfielder's solo goal was chalked off by the VAR, however, for an offside against Kane who was deemed to be interfering with play.

For all the caveats, England were desperately sloppy given the opposition and Malta had their chances to score a famous goal, notably when Teddy Teuma fired wide in the opening minute.

It will go down as another questionable night for Southgate's fringe players, just like last month's drab friendly win over Australia.

By full-time, there were more red seats visible around Wembley than supporters, as fans flooded out of the stadium early rather than stay to see if the hosts could add to their advantage.

England may have qualified but this level of spectacle threatens to put off supporters, many of whom already regard this November international break in particular as an unwelcome distraction from domestic matters.

Southgate will hope for a better display in north Macedonia on Monday when England wrap-up qualifying and can guarantee their status as top seeds in Germany with another win. The sooner this fixture is forgotten, the better.