England started another new era with victory as manager Gareth Southgate opened his interim succession to Sam Allardyce with an attritional triumph over Malta.
The main topics on the post-match agenda were, once again, captain Wayne Rooney’s continuing worth to England and whether this was the sort of display Southgate needed to aid his bid to land the England manager’s job on a permanent basis.
Match report: England 2-0 Malta
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Rooney’s worth to England was subjected to another forensic examination in the build-up to Southgate’s first match in charge – and the 30-year-old was given a strong vote of confidence by the new manager.
Southgate sympathised with the sole focus on Rooney and admitted he could not understand the audible frustration of England’s fans when he shot wildly off target near the end.
He said: “It’s fascinating to get an insight into his world over the last 10 days. Every debate seems to focus on him. The onus on him is enormous, the criticism of him is, at times, unfair and yet he ploughs on and plays with pride and represents his country with pride.”
Southgate compared Rooney to long-term England servants such as John Terry, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole as he added: “They kept turning out and really put themselves on the line. Some other players have not put themselves forward at those moments and withdrawn from squads when the going has got tough.
“Those guys are the people that really desperately wanted to play for England again and again and again and put their necks on the block. Wayne falls into that category.”
Southgate’s faith was clear as Rooney was kept on as captain and started against Malta, and all the indications are that he will keep his place in the next qualifier in Slovenia on Tuesday.
The Manchester United man may not be the force he once was but he is a player and personality who never hides irrespective of any personal struggles for form and his determination to always be involved was in evidence once more at Wembley.
This was, however, another indifferent performance that once again gave the impression that Rooney is increasingly being shoe-horned into England’s plans rather than acting as a fulcrum for a manager’s policy.
Here Rooney, who is 31 later this month, was operating in a deep-lying midfield role spraying “Hollywood” passes left and right to the flanks but not providing any killer creativity, other than two shots which brought saves from Malta’s heroic keeper Andrew Hogg.
He was figuring in a role that Tottenham’s Eric Dier has played better in recent months – he was one of the relative successes amid the fiasco that was Euro 2016 – and the Spurs player will surely adopt the role regularly once more in the future.
Dele Alli, on target once and a danger on several other occasions, is best suited to the “number 10” role Rooney once fitted into neatly, while Harry Kane and Daniel Sturridge are ahead of England’s captain as striking options.
So will Rooney now simply move around where he is needed and become England’s bit-part player throughout this World Cup qualifying campaign?
He was on the ball enough but his influence was marginal. Only England’s man-of-the-match Jordan Henderson (187) had more touches than Rooney’s 177 and he made 153 attempted passes, bettered only by Henderson’s 178.
Rooney gained possession on the most occasions, 14, but also lost it most for England with 25.
Southgate appeared to take issue with the England fans who jeered Rooney’s late, wild attempt on goal, saying: “I don’t understand [the booing] but that seems to be the landscape. I have no idea how that is expected to help him, for sure.”
There are times when it looks like the fire that fuelled Rooney for so long has burned out and the trademark surges into opposition territory were barely in evidence against the massed ranks of Malta’s defence.
He showed frustration, too, and was lucky not to receive serious punishment for a dangerous lunge at Malta captain Andrei Schembri that appeared to get some of the ball but also caught the Boavista player with what plenty would have adjudged to be excessive force.
Rooney may produce the goods in Slovenia but the pressure is growing as he prepares to win his 118th cap, a record for an England outfield player. He must deliver displays of significance soon.
Is Southgate on course for the England job?
It was an unspectacular start for Southgate as he succeeded Sam Allardyce but an effective one which claimed three points and avoided any of the accidents and embarrassment that befell England against Iceland at the Euros in France last summer.
Southgate will have wanted more goals and more tempo, especially in the second half – but what he wanted most of all will have been victory and that was never in doubt.
Greater tests lie ahead for Southgate when it comes to measuring his credentials to become full-time manager after what is effectively a four-game audition period before the Football Association moves to the next stage of its selection progress.
The next qualifier in Slovenia will present more of an examination of how Southgate wants to set up his “brave” England in a foreign environment – the meetings with Scotland at Wembley on 11 November and the following friendly at home to Spain will offer even more conclusive evidence of his suitability.
As for the accusations that he is “too nice” to be in charge, they are understandably starting to grate on a man who has shown enough steel to captain the likes of Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough, as well as making his way into management.
Southgate has looked comfortable in the England manager’s skin this week and has clearly shifted position from early September when he insisted it was too early for him to take the top job.
Little did he know it would become available again so soon and now he knows this is a chance that might not come again for some time.
If he can secure wins against Slovenia and Scotland then it is hard to see how, the possibility of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger’s future availability permitting, the FA will look elsewhere.
England’s next World Cup qualifiers are important in any context – but especially for Southgate’s ambitions to land a job he describes as “a huge honour and a huge responsibility”.
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