Considering the dreary performances from England over the past 20 years, you can’t blame the Football Association racking its collective creative brain in a bid to keep the Wembley faithful engaged throughout the 90 minutes.
Thankfully, on this occasion there was enough from Gareth Southgate’s ranks against Malta on Saturday to ensure the excruciating deployment of a “dab cam” played second fiddle – just.
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Goals from Daniel Sturridge and Dele Alli saw the Three Lions lazily prowl to a 2-0 win, and – despite Malta being ranked a lowly 176th in FIFA’s World Rankings – the tilt served up genuine causes for optimism.
Here are three positives from Southgate’s bow as interim gaffer:
Overcoming Malta by a two-goal advantage is underwhelming, but this an England side trying to pick itself up following a harrowing Euro 2016 Round of 16 exit to Iceland, and a largely deserved bashing from the country’s media.
And it seems Southgate has listened to the calls for more urgency in attacks – well, in the first half at least.
Rather than Wayne Rooney making England rather stagnant in the No. 10 role, Dele Alli busied himself behind Sturridge to reasonable success. The sideways passing was cut down somewhat, and was replaced by tempo-lifting one-touch exchanges in the middle of the park.
One concern that does arise from this method is that debutant Jesse Lingard and Theo Walcott were effectively phased out on the flanks, and lacked the nous to drift inside. With the sidelined sprightly duo of Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling available, however, this shortcoming could be swiftly addressed.
Maybe – just maybe – there will be an England team in the not-too-distant future that can exceed second gear.
Henderson silencing critics
There was one standout performer in the opening stanza, and that was surprisingly Jordan Henderson.
There are legitimate calls that Henderson could be the most underwhelming Liverpool skipper in over 60 years, but under Jurgen Klopp he is going some way to silencing that harsh assessment with superb ball retention coupled with greater attacking adventure in his distribution.
He took his form at club level into Southgate’s XI, seeing the ball more regularly than any of his colleagues and laying on an assist via a pinpoint ball onto Sturridge’s head.
Henderson is never going to set the world alight – leave that to Alli – but his quiet work in midfield was invaluable and he’s putting forward a case to be indispensable for England – at least during Southgate’s stint.
His fortunes contrast to Rooney’s – his teammates habitually bypassed the option of passing to the Manchester United man when he was in his pocket between Malta’s midfield and attack – and his largely ineffective Hollywood passes could easily be swapped for Danny Drinkwater’s work ethic or Eric Dier’s composure.
When Danny Rose replaced the injured Ryan Bertrand on 19 minutes, England’s back four all hailed from South Yorkshire and, fulfilling a stereotype of gentleman hailing from that area of the country, they were extremely stingy.
And in this thrifty throng is one player who will preside over the national side’s defensive duties for many years to come: John Stones.
With Rooney keen to drop back at any opportunity (and Malta possessing no menace whatsoever), it afforded Stones license to stride forward and pick out his teammates with his inventive passes.
Under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage at Manchester City, Stones has thrived with the freedom handed to him thanks to Fernandinho’s positional sense, and Southgate has simply rehashed this on the international stage.
It’s doubtful the Barnsley product will ever reach the quality of Leonardo Bonucci, but he’s of the Italian’s ilk. He, along with Alli and the exciting contingent currently with the Under-20 side, can eventually pull England from its 20th century mindset of 4-4-2s and pacey widemen to a possession-based modern system.