Trent wears the No. 10 jersey well
It wasn’t quite the number 10 role his assigned shirt number implied, but, on the right side of England’s midfield three, Trent Alexander-Arnold relished his license to attack against Malta.
Gareth Southgate hadn’t used the 24-year-old in midfield since a quickly abandoned experience against Andorra in 2021 but this time, having shone in the Liverpool position, that was a different story. “It’s comfortable, natural,” he said afterwards.
It certainly looked like this when he nonchalantly dispatched Bukayo Saka down the right with one of those long, laser-guided passes in the build-up to the first goal, and again when he found the top corner with his superb strike for the second. .
There were plenty of other touches and assists to grab attention and evidence, too, of a budding deal with Saka and Kieran Trippier that could serve England well in the future.
Because, even though it was against the team ranked 171st in the world by FIFA, there was more than enough here to show Southgate that Alexander-Arnold in midfield is worth revisiting.
The handbrake is released – and England are in fourth gear
Sometimes Gareth Southgate’s cautious tag has been a tougher tag than others. Croatia 2018, Italy 2021. There were valid criticisms of an approach that could have cost England in the big games.
We all hoped we’d seen the back of the defense philosophy first when England faced France man-on-man in the World Cup quarter-finals in December, even though they narrowly came up short.
The first signs are that there is no turning back from here. England were anything but defensive despite making history against them in their maiden qualifying win over Italy, and perhaps salvaged their most sophisticated attacking game plan for a stoic Malta on Friday night.
The island minnows are miles from level with England, but it has been two years since they have conceded more than twice in a single game. Southgate’s plan to end this run was to hand out more attack licenses than he had printed in nearly six years of work.
If it wasn’t Alexander-Arnold’s free midfield role – similar to the one invented by one of football’s most attacking managers, let’s not forget – it was Luke Shaw’s invitation to play as a second left winger, with Maddison adrift inside. to offer more trouble between the lines.
Southgate went from worrying about Trent’s defensive ability to giving him the No.10 shirt and playing him there for a second-half spell. The infamous 3-4-3 was finally scrapped ahead of the World Cup, and slowly Southgate’s defensive reputation will follow if he continues to groom England with that kind of intention.
Southgate face toughest England side ever
Jack Grealish, Kyle Walker, John Stones and Kalvin Phillips were left on the bench.
Jude Bellingham, Mason Mount, Ben Chilwell, Reece James, Raheem Sterling, Ivan Toney, Ben White and Nick Pope were seated at home.
Then, Eberechi Eze became the latest talent to step off the treadmill and make his well-deserved senior debut. Levi Colwill will be next.
Alexander-Arnold has been unleashed in midfield and is now showing a thirst to become an England regular.
France’s wealth of options has long been the benchmark, but England have now taken over. It left Gareth Southgate facing his toughest ever team selection for Euro 2024 next summer.
No Bale, lots of problems for Wales
If only Wales could call on Gareth Bale. It was a futile thought of course, but it nonetheless showed just how little strength Wales had in depth. Led 2-1 against Armenia at the break, this match was still winnable for Robert Page’s team against a team ranked 97th in the world.
Bale would usually get them out of such situations. But they have drifted too long for lack of leadership on the ground. Without direction.
They showed a clear lack of quality and were punished by wonderful attacking play from Lucas Zelarayan and the thrilling 19-year-old Grant-Leon Ranos, who has just joined Borussia Mönchengladbach from Bayern Munich.
It was a case of underestimating the opposition, no doubt.
Joe Rodon’s lack of desire to sprint to erase his mistake for Armenia’s second goal laid that bare. Wales will know they have to offer an answer when they travel to Turkey on Monday – a game they will now need to win to keep any serious hopes of qualification alive.
Northern Ireland lack experience, but no fight
While Michael O’Neill was able to welcome Jonny Evans, Ali McCann and Shayne Lavery back into the international fold this month, he is still missing Northern Ireland manager Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas, Corry Evans, Shane Ferguson, Jamal Lewis and Josh Magennis, robbing his team of vital experience.
Only four of his starting line-up at Parken had won 30 or more caps, two – Trai Hume and Isaac Price – were on two each, while Shea Charles had toured six times for his country. With the enormous amount of talent and experience in the Danish team, it seemed that within Parken’s daunting confines there would be only one outcome.
But, boy, haven’t they made it difficult. Northern Ireland offered little in the final third, particularly in the first half, but limited the hosts to just five shots in the first half, none of which were statistically classified as ‘big chances’ . The goal that turned out to be the winner was certainly deserved, but still avoidable. O’Neill’s youth performed and limited the damage when he needed it most.
Spare a thought for Callum Marshall, though.
The 18-year-old signed his first professional contract at West Ham seven months ago and was one of five debutants for the Northern Ireland squad for the trip to Denmark. He was the only one to take to the pitch on Friday and seemed to have written his name in folklore with a 94th-minute equalizer. Marshall looked pleadingly at the referee, only to have VAR crush his dreams five minutes later.
He took it in his stride. “It went from probably the most ecstatic few minutes of my career to date to some of the hardest to take,” he told Viaplay afterwards. “But I was still proud to make my debut and in the few minutes I had, although it won’t have the same effect on my career as it would have if it had, I showed that I can score goals and that’s what I’m here to do.”
If he gets the chance, he will try to set the record straight against Kazakhstan at Windsor Park on Monday.