If ever there was a night to try things, it was this, and so it was for Trent Alexander-Arnold. Playing in a role that was more quarterback than that associated with the No 10 on his shirt, the Liverpool star decorated an otherwise drab 4-0 win over Malta with a series of sublime balls. One of those was a brilliant strike to make it 2-0, as Alexander-Arnold at least gave Gareth Southgate something to think about from a game almost everyone else will instantly forget.
There is of course a danger in reading too much into a game as utterly routine as this, but you might say it’s a start. That’s actually been rare enough with Alexander-Arnold for England, since this was remarkably only his 19th appearance.
If these sort of matches have always provoked debate about whether they should even be taking place, such is the extent of the mismatch, the one element of tension is how long it will take the superior side to score. Southgate had direct knowledge of that given it was his last match in this stadium that was one of his most dismal nights with England. A goalless first half led to away fans booing and cries that the team were “sh*t”.
“We’re not,” Southgate chuckled on the eve of the game here, and his players went out and proved that within eight minutes.
The irony was the scoreline was exactly the same as that more miserable experience, even though England are a completely different team.
The ability to use Alexander-Arnold like this showed that.
He played one of many divine balls, Bukayo Saka hit it across goal and Ferdinando Apap just about denied Kane. The problem was that he denied the striker by putting it into his own goal.
That was that, the game then effectively a training session, if maybe not quite as intense as the ones the players had this week. It was one of those where everyone could try things, as the circumstances led to some experimentation.
James Maddison displayed real innovation with some of his touches, and it was one superb turn that set up England’s second. While the Leicester playmaker completely opened up the space around Malta’s box, he was then blocked down only for the ball to fall to Alexander-Arnold.
The Liverpool star showed another from his array of deliveries by driving a superb long-range strike over the stranded Henry Bonello. The goalkeeper was at the edge of his six-yard box, but it was still sublime for Alexander-Arnold to put it where he did.
There’s almost an elite golfer’s quality to him, a player who can barely be called a defender at this point. Alexander-Arnold has every single shot in his bag.
He went on to emphasise that with the next goal, again supplying the pass, only for Kane to this time be felled by Matthew Gullaumier.
Kane of course supplied the finish for the penalty. That made it 56 international goals in 83 games, only adding to that all-time record.
This game wasn’t going down in history, though. It had barely anything of note other than Alexander-Arnold’s deployment and a few interesting appearances, as well as Ebe Eze’s debut.
The England fans evidently felt the same. By about midway through the second half, the away end had significantly thinned, with the majority of the fans headed out for the local nightspots of St Julian’s.
You could probably add your own line about celebrations given how much Gareth Southgate was pressed on Manchester City’s festivities before the game.
He did introduce Phil Foden in the second half, amid a raft of substitutes that included Eze. One of them, Callum Wilson, also ensured the trip was worth it. The Newcastle United striker hit his second goal for England, benefiting from a penalty after the ball had somewhat unluckily hit Steve Borg’s arm.
It only displayed how misguided the current rules on that are.
The idea of Alexander-Arnold as a playmaker or quarterback, though, now has that bit more logic to it. The case is growing, even if it will require a few more exacting tests.
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