Malta 0-4 England: five talking points from the 2018 World Cup qualifier

England deserved to be booed in first half, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was kept out wide and Kingston’s finest did himself proud … for Malta

The boos at the break told their own story

There was a period towards the end of the first half the home fans in the south stand began bellowing about how poorly England were playing. At the opposite end of the ground, a disgruntled support totalling a little under 3,700 chorused their agreement. There would be boos and ironic jeers for a shot on target before the interval. Breaking down stubborn ranks of Maltese was never likely to prove straightforward, even with the hosts ranked 190 in the world, but there were aspects of this which must have troubled Gareth Southgate. England did not pass the ball particularly sloppily, but the tempo of their approach dropped too often when it needed to be at its sharpest. An early goal might have settled them. As it was, this became rather laboured in the steamy heat.

So was that down to selection?

Perhaps this was not the occasion to have selected two defensive midfielders, in Jordan Henderson and Jake Livermore, particularly given Malta had scored only twice in the group. Could the manager have been more enterprising in his approach, knowing the hosts’ ambitions would be limited? Was this a time to be adventurous? Southgate had warned his players would need “patience and creativity” to prevail though this squad do not boast a creative midfielder to pick apart teams who sit deep. That is the worrying reality. Marcus Rashford injected pace after the break, replacing an anonymous Raheem Sterling, to stretch tiring opponents but it was to dynamism and persistence that Southgate pinned his hopes, not subtlety.

England remain on course for Russia

The victory eventually eked out maintained the team’s progress to Russia, which still appears serene on paper for all the lingering concerns over the standard of the performances. At least Southgate acknowledges the learning process could be protracted. “We’re not going to get it right immediately,” he had said in the buildup when talking up style and approach. A nation which craves a successful representative team might accept the need for patience if there is a clear plan, relayed and understood by the group, aimed at achieving improvement, and yet it is not easy to spy the plusses at times. This was a fourth win in nine games under Southgate, and two of those were against Malta. Even with the gloss of stoppage-time goals, progress is painfully slow.

Oxlade-Chamberlain has yet to demand a central role

The theory goes that Oxlade-Chamberlain’s disillusion at Arsenal was partly born of being used out wide, and most recently as a wing-back. Liverpool’s successful sales pitch to lure him away from the Emirates Stadium, and out of Chelsea’s clutches, came with a promise of more use in the middle. Yet, even when the alternative was the Livermore and Henderson combination, Southgate has clearly to be convinced. Oxlade-Chamberlain was pinned to the flank in a game where the visitors needed width to stretch lowly opponents, with the 24-year-old asked to expose Zach Muscat with explosive pace. And, while there were glimpses of his quality, that ability to wriggle beyond a full-back and exploit space, his instinctive movement was always to drift in-field. He will hope life under Jürgen Klopp is more liberating.

Kingston’s finest does himself proud

A word should be reserved for the home side’s goalkeeper. Andrew Hogg was born in Kingston upon Thames, moved to Malta at the age of five and, now 32, his career has taken him from Bari’s youth team to Pietà Hotspurs, Valletta to Kalloni. He plays for Hibernians in Paola but, in both fixtures against England, he has been excellent. Daniel Sturridge, Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott had all been thwarted at Wembley last October. He would have been disappointed to let Ryan Bertrand’s shot skim past him. Here he was pushing away Harry Kane’s close-range header early on to set the tone and punching clear set pieces confidently as England huffed and puffed. His defenders worked feverishly but it was Hogg who caught the eye.