England record unspectacular win over Malta in Gareth Southgate's image
LONDON -- Three quick thoughts from England's 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Malta at Wembley Stadium on Saturday.
1. England win in Southgate's unspectacular image
In Gareth Southgate, England have appointed an unspectacular, safe pair of hands for the next four games. The 2-0 win over Malta on Saturday was very much a result in the manager's image.
While it was hardly surprising against a team whose last win came in 2013, England dominated the game throughout, spending much of the 90 minutes tip-toeing around some rather robust challenges from Maltese players who didn't offer a huge amount of anything else. Joe Hart could probably have spent the evening sipping coffee back in Turin and still kept a clean sheet.
Goals in the first half from Daniel Sturridge and Dele Alli were enough, and while the second-half performance was pretty unimpressive -- as much of a slog as we have seen at Wembley in recent years -- it became so stodgy that boos rang out around the stadium at the final whistle. That seemed rather harsh given the result, but the 81,000 in the crowd were not exactly richly entertained.
England took the lead just shy of half an hour of dominant but fairly uninspiring football. Jordan Henderson was given as much time as he liked to whip in a cross from deep on the right, and he perfectly picked out his Liverpool teammate Sturridge. The Maltese defence obligingly stepped back and allowed the centre-forward to pick his spot with a header, which Sturridge did perfectly, carefully guiding the ball into the far corner of the net.
The second came 10 minutes later when Henderson again picked up the ball outside the area, drove into the box and laid it off for Alli, whose first effort was saved by the impressive but beleaguered Maltese goalkeeper Andrew Hogg. But the Tottenham man was first to the rebound and stabbed it home. At that stage, it looked like England were older boys bullying some pipsqueaks on the school playground, but after the break, Malta were much more solid.
More questions will inevitably be asked about Wayne Rooney, who captained the side despite not playing for Manchester United recently. He managed to misdirect three passes in the opening two minutes: Two were given away, and one -- straight from kickoff -- was placed in the empty space between three colleagues. In fairness, this is the sort of game Rooney which he couldn't really win: Every error would be pounced on, and every positive would be written off as "only against Malta."
But in the end it didn't really matter. England could probably have put out a team of League Two players and still have won. Tougher tests lie ahead.
2. Henderson rewarded for a perfectly played game
Henderson has often been a frustrating presence in an England shirt. As a man who can do quite a good job in a number of roles but has never quite nailed one down, you often wonder exactly what he's for.
This season he has filled in as Liverpool's deepest-lying midfielder, allowing Jurgen Klopp's coterie of attacking talents to do their thing in front of him, and he was terrific in that role for England on Saturday. With all the relevant caveats in mind about the opposition he was facing, most of whom resembled commuters running for the wrong train while players with much greater skill and fitness ran and fizzed the ball around them, Henderson played this game perfectly.
He exuded an air of efficient authority, rarely trying anything too elaborate, safe in the knowledge that as long as he adhered to the Sunday league cliche of doing all the basic things well -- very well -- then that would be more than enough to get the desired results against such limited opposition. No need for anything fancy, just show up, do what's required to win and tuck the three points under your arm.
It was perhaps even more impressive given that he had to deal with Rooney constantly dropping back into his area of the pitch, stepping on his toes and trying to spray those long, looping passes out wide.
Henderson set up the first with a pinpoint cross right onto Sturridge's head, then the second after nipping the ball away from his Liverpool colleague as if to say, "Leave this to me, son." The trick now is to be this good against rather more taxing opponents.
3. Southgate needs reinforcements for battered England
In his prematch comments on Friday, Southgate looked exasperated at the sheer number of injuries to have befallen his first England squad. The manager was unable to call on Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne, among others, due to ailments of various sorts.
There was another to add in this game, as Ryan Bertrand limped off in the first half clutching his hamstring, thus leaving Southgate with just one fit left-back to go with the one fit right-back after Clyne and his replacement Glen Johnson pulled out of the squad.
This, dare we say it, is where the international retirement of James Milner becomes a little more significant. Milner has done a solid job on the left side of defence for Liverpool this season, and while that's not the role that he would prefer, his versatility was an enormous plus to an international squad. Even if that was part of the reason he gave up on England earlier this year, he was certainly a handy man to have around.
Southgate said before the game that he would consider calling up reinforcements for the trip to Slovenia on Tuesday, and this latest injury surely means that will become a necessity.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.