Southgate’s Trent Experiment suggests this gifted and flawed performer deserves bigger stage
Jonathan Liew Wembley
Prepare the flags and the bunting. Fire up the hypemobile. Someone fetch Baddiel and Skinner out of storage. Joseph Calleja, Edward de Bono, George Vella, Marc Storace, Miriam Gauci, Michael Mifsud, can you hear me? Lorenzo Gafa, baroque architect of the 17th century and designer of the Church of St Roque in Valletta, can you hear me? Your boys took a hell of a beating! A hell of a beating! On a still and chilly night at Wembley, England continued their irrepressible swagger towards next summer’s European Championship in Germany by comfortably despatching the world’s 171st-ranked team. The cynics, the doom-mongers and the Gareth-haters will naturally point out that England should probably have been expected to triumph a little more resoundingly against a nation ranked just below Fiji and just ahead of Bermuda. Ignore them. This is the lottery of international football, and besides you can only beat whatever tiny Mediterranean island nation is put in front of you. But ultimately the belated assurance with which England finished the game, with a far stronger team than coach Southgate will have wanted to put out, will not be its defining motif. Malta were certainly far better than their performances in this qualifying campaign to date might have suggested, and after almost burgling an opening goal within 30 seconds had several opportunities to inflict an epochal embarrassment. And if you were looking to point the finger, there was plenty of chagrin to go round. Harry Maguire had another mixed night in possession. Fikayo Tomori, astonishingly, failed to nail down a left-back position he has hardly ever played at senior level. Conor Gallagher and Marcus Rashford moved a place or two down the pecking order after indifferent displays. But if there was a bright spot here, it was in the very centre of the pitch, and an encouraging night for England’s latest No 10, albeit one who has spent most of his career at right-back. Yes: it was the night of the Trent Experiment. From the moment the teams were announced at Wembley it was clear that the decision to deploy Trent Alexander-arnold in central midfield was going to be the evening’s main point of interest, one way or the other. And really this is the essential appeal of Alexander-arnold, for all his well-documented gifts and flaws as a player. You really want to give him the ball. It’s not an option of last resort. You want to see what he does with it. In this respect Alexander-arnold is a very modern midfielder, in that his first instinct is to get the ball out of midfield as quickly as possible. This is not the guy you pick if you want endless holding patterns and immaculate control of the game. We saw this from the very earliest minutes of the game, as Alexanderarnold took the ball and dribbled out of midfield, winning a free-kick after being pulled back by Kemar Reid. And all evening Alexanderarnold was doing strange things, the sort of things that haven’t really been done in an England midfield – certainly this far deep – for a while. Running with the ball. Playing it first time. Swerving delicious bananas out wide with the outside of his foot. For a nation raised on the hard rations of Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson playing simple 10-yard passes with the instep, this was a new and striking point of difference: a vision of what an England midfield could be with a little panache and ambition. With Jude Bellingham now a lock in the advanced playmaker role, Kalvin Phillips still short of minutes and Jordan Henderson now plying his trade in a novelty league, there is a spot to be fought for in this midfield. Alexander-arnold certainly looks the part, even if doubts remain over his positioning off the ball. His distribution we already knew about. There was a sumptuous diagonal ball over the top for Bukayo Saka in the second half. On the hour, a clean volley from 18 yards hit straight at the goalkeeper. A late assist for Rice was denied by the video referee. Enough evidence, surely, to give him another look against stronger opposition. But perhaps the most telling moments of his evening were the ones in which he was ultimately not involved at all. The surging diagonal run he made from deep into the right channel, only for the pass from Kieran Trippier to be delivered too late. Pointing into the midfield space where he wanted Jordan Pickford to roll the ball so he could launch a counterattack, only to see Pickford play it safely towards the flank. These are the sorts of instincts that will need to be trained if the Trent Experiment is to enjoy any sustained success. And the operative question, really, is not whether Alexanderarnold ready for England, but whether England are ready for him.