Trent wears the No 10 shirt well
It was not quite the No 10 role his allocated shirt number hinted at, but, on the right-hand side of England’s midfield three, Trent Alexander-Arnold relished his licence to attack against Malta.
Gareth Southgate had not used the 24-year-old in midfield since a swiftly-abandoned experiment against Andorra in 2021 but this time, having shone in the position for Liverpool, it was a different story. “It feels comfortable, natural,” he said afterwards.
It certainly looked that way when he nonchalantly sent Bukayo Saka racing clear on the right with one of those laser-guided long passes in the build-up to the opening goal, and again when he found the top corner with his stunning strike for the second.
There were plenty of other touches and passes to catch the eye and evidence, too, of a nascent understanding with Saka and Kieran Trippier which could serve England well in the future.
Because, even if this was against the side ranked 171st in the world by FIFA, there was more than enough here to show Southgate that Alexander-Arnold in midfield is something worth revisiting.
The handbrake’s off – and England are into fourth gear
At times Gareth Southgate’s cautious tag has been a harsher label than at others. Croatia 2018, Italy 2021. There were valid criticisms of an approach which may have cost England in big games.
We all hoped we had seen the back of the defence-first philosophy when England matched France man-for-man in the World Cup quarter-finals in December, even if they narrowly came up short.
The early signs are that there is no going back from here. England were anything but defensive despite the history against them in their opening qualifying win over Italy, and saved perhaps their most sophisticated attacking game plan for a stoic Malta on Friday night.
The island minnows are miles from England’s level but it’s been two years since they last conceded more than twice in a single game. Southgate’s plan to end that run was to hand out more licences to attack than he’s had printed in almost six years in the job.
If it wasn’t Alexander-Arnold free midfield role – similar to the one first coined by one of football’s most attack-minded managers, let’s not forget – it was Luke Shaw’s invitation to play as a second left-winger, with Maddison drifting inside to offer more problems between the lines.
Southgate has gone from worrying about Trent’s defensive ability to giving him the No 10 shirt, and playing him there for a period in the second half. The infamous 3-4-3 was finally ditched before the World Cup, and slowly Southgate’s defensive reputation will follow if he keeps setting England up with this kind of intent.
Southgate faces toughest England selection 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 sat at home.
Then there was Eberechi Eze becoming the latest talent to step off the conveyor belt and make his well-deserved senior debut. Levi Colwill shall be the next.
Alexander-Arnold was unleashed in midfield and is now showing the hunger to become an England regular.
France’s wealth of options has long been the benchmark but England have taken that baton now. It has left Gareth Southgate facing his toughest squad selection ever for Euro 2024 next summer.
No Bale, loads of problems for Wales
If only Wales had Gareth Bale to call upon. It was a futile thought of course, but it nonetheless showcased just how little strength Wales have in depth. At 2-1 down to Armenia at the break, this game was still winnable for Robert Page’s side against a team ranked 97 in the world.
Bale usually dug them out of such situations. But they drifted for too long under a lack of leadership on the field. Directionless.
They showed a distinct lack of quality and were punished by some wonderful attacking play from Lucas Zelarayan and the exciting 19-year-old Grant-Leon Ranos, who has just joined Borussia Monchengladbach from Bayern Munich.
This was a case of underestimating the opposition, no doubt.
Joe Rodon’s lack of desire to sprint back to erase his error for Armenia’s second goal laid that bare. Wales will know they have to offer up a response when they travel to Turkey on Monday – a game they now will need to win to keep serious qualification hopes alive.
Northern Ireland lacking experience, but not fight
While Michael O’Neill was able to welcome back Jonny Evans, Ali McCann and Shayne Lavery to the international fold this month, the Northern Ireland manager is still missing the likes of Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas, Corry Evans, Shane Ferguson, Jamal Lewis and Josh Magennis, robbing his squad vital experience.
Only four of his starting lineup at Parken had earned 30 caps or more, two – Trai Hume and Isaac Price – were on two each, while Shea Charles had turned out six times for his country. With the huge amount of talent and experience in the Danish side, it seemed as though within the intimidating confines of Parken there would only be one outcome.
But, boy, didn’t they make it difficult. Northern Ireland offered little in the final third, particularly in the first half, but they restricted their hosts to just five shots in the first half, none of which were statistically categorised as ‘big chances’. The goal that proved to be the winner was certainly deserved, but still preventable. O’Neill’s youth performed and limited the damage when he needed them 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 in the Northern Ireland squad for the trip to Denmark. He was the only one to get on the pitch on Friday and looked to have written his name in folklore with a 94th-minute equaliser. Marshall looked pleadingly towards the referee, only for VAR to crush his dreams five minutes later.
He took it in his stride. “It went from probably the most ecstatic couple of 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 couple of minutes that I did get, as much as it won’t have the same effect on my career as what it would have done if it stood, I’ve shown that I can score goals and that’s what I’m here to do.”
Given the chance, he’ll be out to set the record straight against Kazakhstan at Windsor Park on Monday.