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  • Writer's pictureJourneyman

The Pragmatist

England 2-0 Malta (UEFA European Championship Qualifiers)

Portugal are playing Liechtenstein and Head Coach Roberto Martinez has came up with what I think is a genius attacking 2-1-3-4 formation which has midfielder Ruben Neves playing as an apexed centre half, Diogo Jota, Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva in front of him across the middle, with two attacking wingers in Joao Felix and Joao Cancelo and a couple up front in Goncalo Ramos and Ronaldo.

The game ends 2-0 but Portugal have over 80% of the possession and 29 shots in total. Ironically the best chance of the game fell to Liechtenstein who scuffed their one-on-one opportunity, but is this the future to breaking down those international minnows’ defences who regularly sit eleven men behind the ball? Just go all out and gung-ho? “So what if they nick one on the break? ‘In our attacking threat we’ll get seven or eight.” Says Martinez.

I’m hoping England will show a little ‘adventure’ tonight. I’ve 6 years long had a Wembley membership and although I tried to hand it back in the summer, largely fed up of nights like this but mainly because it costs too much, tonight I’ve been persuaded to not sell my seat and watch the three Lions live because my Mrs wants to go… After all… She’s half Maltese.

So we’re making a day of it. I’ve said no swanky three course meals or Thames view hotel stays, the usual Wembley match costs me five or six hundred quid not to mention the five grand a year tickets which I’m contracted too… So instead we’ll stop off at Milton Keynes Shopping Centre on the way, a quick bite to eat at the Cosy Club and down the M1, onto the North Circular and paying £30 to some Eastern European to scratch my car in his builders yard.

The Venue

I’ve been here a million times so am all about the entrance and exit strategy. Parking on Fifth Way, Fourth Way, First Way, whichever way I can get out of this queuing traffic, but once I’m out and parked up it’s a short ten minute walk down Engineers Way, where you get a lovely view of the stadium arch through the stunning tall apartment blocks.

She’s after a half and half scarf so I tell her best chance is one of the stalls on Wembley Way. There’s a queue outside an ‘official’ merchandise truck opposite Boxpark where we are stung for £20, on towards the stadium where we go under, not up, the steps. The Club Wembley Entrance catching a few out in front of us who are turned away and told to go back upstairs.

You’re through a metal detector, then some glass doors, scan your phone at a small subway like ticket barrier and it’s up the escalators to the concourse littered by bars and eateries. Tonight doesn’t seem so busy as we pass a ‘VIP’ champagne reception and grab a pint of Budweiser for £6.40 and cup of tea for the price of 160 Tetley teabags. The wife then buys ‘another’ scarf for her brother before securing a couple of free programmes for souvenirs and out into the open where she gets a photo whilst holding her scarf up for Instagram.

Inside the immaculate arena is red, huge, spacious, it’s a whopping great big thing but not imposing, far from it, comfortable, formidable, stunning, it’s the home of English football regardless of it’s upgrade from twin towers to glowing arch, it’s the place every kid wants to play at when they get older, and I always pinch myself that I’ve played here twice.

The Game

We’ve had a pick and mix for a tenner before taking our seats behind the goal, a moments silence to reflect on the late great Bobby Charlton, but before that, I’ve got issues with my seat. It’s wet. In fact everytime I come here I get a wet arse. And on inspection we find a pin hole on the plastic padded surface, when you press your buttock down a bit of water seeps out. I’m photographing it to send to maintenance. The wife’s gone to the Members desk for a towel for me to sit on but they offer to move us. Problem is I like my seat, I’m happy here, and would be happier without a wet arse, so I simply sit on my coat instead.

The minutes applause is spine tingling as ‘some’ cries of “Only one Bobby Charlton” are heard, lights dimmed during a sombre moment. I’m proper clasping my hands together to the point it hurts, Bobby Charlton was a true England great. One of our best ever and I’ve got a lump in my throat. I’ll never forget wearing a ‘Bobby Charlton Soccer School’ sponsored kit for my Saturday side when I was eleven or twelve years old. Some of my friends would even say I copy his comb over to this day!

The anthems are blasted out through the PA system, my wife doesn’t even know the words to Malta’s, before I blurt out badly, God Save the King, then no sooner do I sit down and finish pratting around with my phone for pictures, should Malta already be 1-0 up.

The ‘minnows’ kick off and whisk a shot inches wide of Jordan Pickford’s goal, he’s scurrying nervously over at full stretch, a few giggles amongst the crowd to say ‘that’s not in the script’.

The crowd is huge tonight, over 80,000 for a game that is as predictable as they come. I don’t know the odds but if Malta aren’t a million to one it’s not enough… But they’re doing ok, England are crap… As Roberto Martinez played eight genuine attacking players in last night’s win over Liechtenstein, Gareth Southgate has picked three to see off Malta. He’s gone for three centre backs, two right backs, two holding midfielders, he’s hoping to grind a three points out the old fashioned England way, of boring their opponents to death.

Fortunately one of the England attacking players is quite good. Ok, two of the three are (including Harry Kane), but Phil Foden in particular, has started well and he’s running at defenders with pace. He’s taken one fabulous touch to get away from his man and squares a ball into danger which is deflected home by Malta defender Pepe. Bonello has hands to it but it bobbles over the line, it’s all very scrappy but it’s England’s first of many… We suspect.

The Score

But that goal does little to catalyst England onto another level. Marcus Rashford huffs and puffs down the left but he’s out of form, his tricks and flicks not paying off, he’s running into trouble and falling over, Harry Kane has had no service and gets booked frustratingly for diving, meanwhile Malta have had three or four decent efforts which have them well and truly in the game.

At half time there’s no boos but there’s been plenty of kids bored as hell, twatting around and throwing paper aeroplanes. There’s been a few attempts at Mexican Waves, it’s all very ‘traditional England supporting’ that nobody gives a crap about watching the game. One guy next to me has been up three or four times, piss, burger, pint, piss, he’s only watched ten minutes whilst his brat of a child sits with his mates looking for objects to throw on to the lower tier.

The wife’s used her sweetie cup for a free water refill. Yes free!!! At Wembley, we stand in a bit of warmth at half time before making way back to our seats, ‘it can’t be as bad as the first half’ I feel as Gareth Southgate makes a couple of subs.

Now we have three right backs in the team instead of three centre halves as Kyle Walker joins Kieran Trippier and Trent Alexander-Arnold on the field of play. Bukayo Saka is also on as Tomori and Gallagher go off… Immediately it settles England into a more dominant structure, 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 (as opposed to a pragmatic 4-3-3) which is much more sensible and attack minded to break down the opposition, but you sense it’s the players, in personnel, not the tactical switch, that improves the England makeup. More attacking options, more forward movement, it’s better but by now Malta have settled into the game and they have good structure too.

In fact it takes an injury to out of form striker Marcus Rashford before ‘real’ improvements are made. Rashford has been knocked over by a fellow England player who runs into him (probably deliberately) and he comes off all star gazed for debutant Cole Palmer. Suddenly the home nation spark into life. Trent Alexander Arnold unleashes and the goalkeeper of Malta is forced to make a save. 63 minutes gone and England have ‘finally’ had their first shot on target.

That opens the floodgates, on 75 a slick move is finished off by Harry Kane. We all sigh with relief to finally put the game to bed, before Declan Rice with England’s third shot on target, nestles home a belting curling beautiful drive from 25 yards. VAR check… What for? Harry Kane's toe was apparently off and it might have obstructed the goalkeepers vision. A strange decision on a night of strange decisions, not just by the Referee who was poor, but by the England Manager too.

The Stars

We stayed until the end because we felt that leaving early wouldn't necessarily beat the traffic, because everybody else left early, but on a night where you could pick huge holes in England’s performance, let’s not take anything away from ‘little old Malta’ who my wife was as proud as punch of. Their fans the stars of the night but their number seven Joseph Mbong looked a lively player down the right. It was also good to see Notts County wide man Jodi Jones against England’s elite, he came off the bench and put himself about a bit.

Few positives found as I listened to the hoards of calls on the TalkSport phone in on my way up the M1 home. One caller getting it spot on “England have an extra-ordinary group of footballers but they are managed by an ordinary manager”. I’ve always been a Southgate fan, but I really can’t defend undefendable team selections. Jordan Henderson looks out of sought, out of fitness, sluggish, laboured, un-necessary, and certainly not good enough to compete with Malta, having tossed it off for millions in Saudi Arabia, it’s time we thanked him for his previous great years for England, and simply moved on to a younger better hungrier prospect. Rashford likewise needs a rest from duty… It’s mind boggling to think that Raheem Sterling, in the form he’s in, cannot get into this England side.

Harry Maguire however is one from the night that can keep his head held high, he got a good cheer ahead of the match and again provided his usual solid performance in an England shirt. Next to him Crystal Palace defender Marc Guehi, is building his foundations to become potentially Maguire’s successor. He’ll be at a ‘big club’ soon as for me, he’s destined to play regular Champions League football, he oozes class.

Phil Foden was a constant buzz and is an exceptional talent we must embrace more, whilst Trent, in midfield, did well, you could argue he didn’t need to be sat with Conor Gallagher and Jordan Henderson for company, or that England would have even got away with him playing right back tonight, but he’s certainly a player who holds his own at the level due to the impeccable ball playing ability he has.

The Verdict

Are England good enough to go on to win the Euros? Remember, no John Stones, no Jude Bellingham, for large parts of the match England played against Malta without Saka and Rice, they are a better team than this performance suggests, a night to forget, move on, and improve.

I wonder whether Southgate has the ability to get this team over the line in major tournaments, but he does deserve one more chance. The only concern with many fans in keeping Gareth at the helm, is that if we do, then could it be another wasted tournament as this team is certainly now good enough for winning silverware.

The talent is there… I’m not so sure about the tactics. But if England play their best eleven.. It’s highly likely that against anybody in the world, on the day, that they are good enough, to win. Even with playing two holding midfielders.

The Teams

England: Jordan Pickford, Kieran Trippier, Harry Maguire, Marc Guehi, Fikayo Tomori (Bukayo Saka 46), Trent Alexander-Arnold, Conor Gallagher (Kyle Walker 46), Jordan Henderon (Declan Rice 61), Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford (Cole Palmer 61), Harry Kane.

Malta: Henry Bonello, Steve Borg, Enrico Pepe, Jean Borg (Zach Muscat 79), Joseph Mbong (Cain Attard 86), Yankam Yannick, Matthew Guillaumier (Bjorn Kristensen 59), Teddy Teuma, Ryan Camenzuli, Paul Mbong (Jodi Jones 59), Kemar Reid (Kyrian Nwoko 79).

7:45pm Kick Off. Friday 17th November 2023, Wembley Stadium, London (att 81,388).

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