England’s not-quite manager Gareth Southgate survives bland audition

The caretaker manager did what he needed to do with Roberto Mancini in the crowd at what is surely the world’s least intimidating 90,000 national stadium

Enter, the temp-to-perm caretaker. On a subdued afternoon at Wembley, England kicked off their latest not‑quite dawn with a colourless 2-0 defeat of Malta that saw Gareth Southgate stand and fret and look convincing enough on the touchline in his first game as not-quite England manager.

Southgate will be condemned by some for the general beigeness of the occasion. He is after all an England manager. This is what we do. But given the poverty of the opposition and the neck-cricking, one-sided nature of the match the idea that this was some kind of audition to be passed or flunked just two weeks into the job seemed increasingly remote as the afternoon drifted on.

Southgate didn’t fall over. He didn’t pick two goalkeepers, or swear in his post-match press conference. He didn’t try to canvas extra earnings, or mock his predecessors, or sip from a pint of wine. Which does at least put him one up on the last bloke after one game in charge.

Still, though, what to make of Southgate: Episode One Of Four? If anything at all? England have been involved in some pretty desolate occasions in recent years. In Brazil two years ago, Roy Hodgson’s team even managed to turn an actual World Cup group match in Belo Horizonte into an occasion so devoid of life at least one member of the travelling press corps could be seen collapsing asleep on to his laptop midway through the second half.

This, though, was something different. Even the Wembley full house had a thin and watery atmosphere, at least compared to pretty much every other football occasion likely to take place on these shores on a Saturday afternoon. This is perhaps the least intimidating 90,000-capacity national stadium in the world, a place that on an afternoon like this feels a bit like visiting the Ideal Home Exhibition or attending a Cliff Richard concert. The English are good at this. We come and watch. But Wembley is set at room temperature these days.

Over to you then, Gareth. In many ways Southgate was in an impossible position here. The enduring obsession with the manager’s position hardly helps, as though it really is the lone man on the touchline rather than stalled development, tactical anti‑intellectualism and not having good enough players that has been the problem down the decades.

Here Southgate sang the national anthem with quiet gusto. He carried himself nicely. He sat frowning next to the indestructible, oddly comforting Sammy Lee. As Ryan Bertrand limped off after 18 minutes, Southgate rose and stood looking useful in his rich blue England suit, likeable and sensible as ever, albeit with an air of the kind of ambitious deputy-head of Geography who tells the detention class he is willing to take a joke but only so far and brings in his own pasta salad for lunch in his briefcase.

He picked an attacking team here, as he had to. Some will be disappointed by the failure to start Marcus Rashford and the insistence on keeping Rooney in the team. But you can hardly blame Southgate for that. He’s on trial. Win a few games, induce enough conviction from this group of players in the next 360 minutes of football and this is it, the best shot he will ever get at the job. This wasn’t a moment to strip it back and take an axe to the past. Rather, a day to pick the usual suspects and buy yourself a shot.

In the end the weakness of the opposition made England’s performance impossible to gauge. Nothing much happened for 30 minutes. Rooney continued to float his favourite telegraphed diagonal passes out to the right. England scuttled. Malta hustled. England scored out of nowhere, Daniel Sturridge producing a nice headed finish. Some more scuttling and hustling happened. Dele Alli scored another.

This wasn’t really a football match. At least, not in the sense of being an actual match. There was football, but it all went one way. People sometimes say these occasions are like a game of chess. This was like a game of chess where one person can’t really play chess.

As the second half wore on Southgate folded his arms and watched his midfield try to play off the cuff against that double-press of red shirts. A few of the only real decisions he could make here came off up to a point. Jesse Lingaard looked eager. Alli was in the right position at No10. On the other hand Rooney in midfield was the usual strain, a highly skilled footballer doing his best but playing without the easy rhythms, the natural range of short-passing of a career midfielder. New “angry” Theo Walcott looked quite a lot like old non-angry Theo Walcott.

England were pretty dismal here in the second half, just as they have been dismal before and they will be dismal again. Southgate could at least speak afterwards with the rare detachment of a man only half in the job: on his team (“there’s ... room for improvement”); and on the minor booing of Rooney (“I don’t understand it”).

The debate over managers will go on. Roberto Mancini was in the crowd here: cue another storyline, another trail. Meanwhile as ever the real story, the real key to concerted, industrial‑scale success as an international team will continue to lie beyond the latest man in the blazer.