England coach Gareth Southgate said his team were not at “the level we want to be at” after a laboured 2-0 home victory against Group C makeweights Malta on Friday that all but ensured top seeding at Euro 2024.
Until the 75th minute all that separated Southgate’s lacklustre side from 171st-ranked Malta was an early own goal by Enrico Pepe and they had some anxious moments in between.
There was precious little to get enthused about though as several England fringe players wasted the chance to make a statement of intent to Southgate.
“I’ve been in football for three years and I know if you don’t start games well it’s really hard to pick it up,” Southgate said in a news conference. “We needed to show better quality with the ball, but we were also a bit stretched without and a little bit disjointed in our pressing at times.
“We know it’s not the level we want to be at, not the level we need to be at. But equally this group of players have been exceptional and I’m not about to start getting into their ribs too much for a performance like tonight.”
England had already qualified for next year’s finals in Germany and victory over Malta ensured they will win Group C. They now need only a point against North Macedonia on Monday to be sure of being one of five teams to join the hosts in Pot 1 — though their superior goal difference means it’s now almost assured.
“I think sometimes when players have so many matches they almost self-regulate,” Southgate said. “You know there’s a certain level you need to hit to beat Italy, and you know you don’t have to hit that level to win today’s game.
“Although you would think everybody would be at the same level all the time, that’s not the reality of football. I’ve played in those matches myself and subconsciously you just do enough to win. I think that’s a little bit where we were tonight.”
Southgate will rightly say the hard work had already been done with impressive home and away victories over European champions Italy enabling his side to dominate the group.
He could also point to the likes of Jude Bellingham not being available for their final qualifying games because of injury.
But there is no getting away from the fact his players should have found it much easier to put away a gutsy Malta side who had no points and only two goals in the group.
With several of his first-choice players on the bench, England were tepid in a first half in which Malta had more goal attempts, looked more energetic and could count themselves rather unfortunate to be behind.
England went ahead in the eighth minute thanks to a slice of fortune as Phil Foden‘s cut back cannoned off the covering Pepe and into the net despite a valiant effort by Malta keeper Henry Bonello to keep it out.
Harry Maguire‘s awful pass soon afterwards offered Malta another chance but Paul Mbong blazed his shot over.
Kane was then booked for diving despite contact from Bonello after nudging the ball past the keeper — referee Luis Godinho deciding Kane had deliberately trailed his leg to buy a penalty.
Bonello was not troubled again by a pedestrian England before halftime as the home crowd began to entertain themselves by flying paper aeroplanes on to the Wembley turf.
Gallagher and Fikayo Tomori were both replaced at halftime with Bukayo Saka and Kyle Walker coming on but things hardly improved with Marcus Rashford‘s collision with team mate Trent Alexander-Arnold summing up a disjointed display.
Kane ensured the victory with a simple finish but it was a desperately flat performance by England who will find out much more about themselves with friendlies against Belgium and Brazil next year in the buildup to the finals.
“We wouldn’t get away with it in March and the players would just have a different level of motivation, Southgate added.
ESPN’s Connor O’Halloran and Reuters contributed to this report.