Despite having a 163-place advantage in FIFA’s world rankings, the Three Lions seemed almost uninterested in facing Malta, dragging out one of the least inspiring performances of Southgate’s tenure. Evidently struggling creatively, England produced just 0.94 xG, managing a dismal 11 shots despite enjoying 75% possession.
Naturally, goals did not come easily at Wembley. The first followed a rash of early England pressure as a Phil Foden cross confounded Malta’s Enrico Pepe, who deflected the ball into his own net for an almost comical own goal to open the scoring. England’s second wouldn’t come for over an hour. England cruised through the centre of the Maltese defence with the ease one would have expected throughout the 90 minutes rather than as a one-off before Kane finished from close range. The enthusiasm of his celebration, or lack thereof, matched perfectly the energy of the occasion and the deflated atmosphere of the nearly sold-out Wembley.
Damp England performances such as this are unfortunately all too familiar. While Southgate has a handful of excuses to fall back on, namely a growing injury list, one has to ask questions of his management. The starting eleven may not have been his ideal, but still featured a crop of world class players, including eight regular Premier League starters, not to mention Harry Kane, Fikayo Tomori, and a substitutes bench featuring the talents of Declan Rice, Jack Grealish, Jarrod Bowen, and Ollie Watkins.
The squad which Southgate has to work with is almost unparalleled for its depth of quality and topflight pedigree. The quality available speaks for itself. Its hard not to wonder whether Southgate is worthy of a squad with all the tools to be earning silverware.
Of course, there would be very little to be gained by sacking Southgate now, just months away from the Euros kicking off. However, it is time for England to raise its standard. After falling at the final hurdle of the 2020 Euros, the target is clear coming into this tournament. With both his job and the reputation of his England stint in the balance, it’s sink or swim for Southgate, and preparation time is quickly running out.