Trent Alexander-Arnold stood and surveyed. He saw the run from Marcus Rashford and the pass was a delight; cutting across the ball from right to left, it floated into the space. But what followed was something out of a cartoon drawn specifically to show what England struggling to beat Malta at home would look like. As Rashford’s run into the box was stopped and Malta cleared, Alexander-Arnold controlled and drove forward in one movement. But it was too much: Alexander-Arnold crashed into Rashford. Wembley groaned. Rashford limped off, injured.
It was that kind of night. The paper aeroplanes quickly overtook England to take the lead: more had landed on the Wembley pitch than England had managed shots against the side ranked 171st in the world. Sailing down from high up in the stands, those folded pieces of A4 perhaps made for a more entertaining sight than Gareth Southgate’s side as they toiled and strugged and led only to Enrico Pepe’s eighth-minute own goal. That was obviously not enough to please the masses.
It took until the 74th minute for England to finally click. Alexander-Arnold surging through a challenge in midfield to play in Kyle Walker, Phil Foden cleverly finding Bukayo Saka with a slided pass, Harry Kane dropping into position to tuck away England’s second and final goal of the night with what was only their second shot on target. Soon enough, Declan Rice curled in a pleasing third, only for VAR to disallow it due to Kane being stood in an offside position.
Again, it was that kind of night. Still, job done, of sorts. England will be among the seeded teams in next month’s Euro 2024 draw. England, though, played as if there wasn’t a job to be done. It was a completely forgettable exercise, the sort of occasion where even Southgate will have struggled to learn much from.
Except one thing, perhaps. In some respects, this was the night where Southgate handed Alexander-Arnold the keys to his midfield. So much for the supposed hesitancy to trust – this was Alexander-Arnold having the license to be what he wanted to be, to go everywhere if he wanted to. And for the most part, Alexander-Arnold really was everywhere, ghosting into several roles at once, like a hurried waiter attempting to cater to several overly demanding tables on a busy night. Ultimately for Rashford, Alexander-Arnold’s exuberance to burst forward resulted in an early substitution.
Which, for Alexander-Arnold, was not a great look. Nor was the scoreline, or England’s overall performance, which should not, it has to be said, be attributed solely down to him. But this was also, in some ways, his night: his audition for a role in England’s midfield at Euro 2024. Alexander-Arnold, the 4, the 6, and the 8, wearing the 10, was given Wembley to do some free jazz. Asked what he wanted to be for England, Alexander-Arnold’s response was to be a bit of everything.
There was the deep-lying Trent, the constructor, with his studs on the ball and his head aloft. The deep-lying Trent also showed a burst of speed, turning and accelerating to quicken England’s play, and was chopped down by Maltese opponents three times within the opening 10 minutes – once rather unceremoniously by Kemar Reid.
Then there was the combining Trent, the one who roamed and drifted into the little pockets that popped up just inside Malta’s half, stopping and waiting, building the picture of what was around him. At first glance, most of his work here involved short return passes, but then came the acceleration again, the delightful flick around the corner to Foden, the lofted ball through to Kane, delivered with the quick snap of his instep.
At which point Alexander-Arnold became something else: the driving Trent, the arriving Trent, reaching the edge of the box with a surge. There was a hint of the Gerrard to this Trent, a sense that he wanted to be on the receiving end of his own pass. There was the first-time shot from the angle of the penalty area, curled towards the top corner. Given England’s half, though, it curled harmlessly over the bar. But on a dull night, it was something to hold onto.
On the other side of England’s midfield was Conor Gallagher. Brought off at half-time, barely having a touch, it illustrated how much came through Alexander-Arnold instead. Cole Palmer later came on and brought a flash with a couple of weaves and shimmies off the right. It belatedly offered a glimpse of some freshness on an evening where Southgate looked reluctant to experiment with anything new. But he did try something with Alexander-Arnold – the last to come off the pitch at the end, long after most at Wembley had already left.
There were a few messages like that here. After all, there will be a space in England’s midfield this summer next to Rice and Jude Bellingham, who was desperately missed – even though he clearly should not have been. On a completely forgettable night there was perhaps one conclusion, and that is that Alexander-Arnold is closer to starting for England, and having more responsibility within that side, than we maybe realised.