Dust off the bunting. Prepare the open-top bus parade. 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 Gafà, 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 Championships in Germany by comfortably dispatching Malta. Naturally the cynics, the doom-mongers and the Gareth-haters will be tempted to point out that at 171st in the world, England’s opposition were ranked just below Fiji and just above Bermuda. Ignore them. This is the cauldron of international football, and you can only beat whatever tiny Mediterranean island nation is put in front of you.
Yet as England grafted and sweated their way to another joyless three points at Wembley, ending the game with a far stronger team than Gareth Southgate would have wanted to put out, there was one redeeming feature to an otherwise desultory evening. The thwarted attacking patterns and frequent brushes with embarrassment will be largely forgotten to history. This is not a drill. Trent Alexander-Arnold may just be ready to play central midfield for England.
Yes, it was only Malta. But on a night when so many of teammates tried to make their case for a place in the Euro 2024 squad only to slip down the pecking order – Fikayo Tomori, Conor Gallagher, Marcus Rashford – Southgate’s most daring gambit was his one resounding success. At the very least there was enough in those luxuriant long balls and stylish one-touch layoffs to give him another look against stronger opposition.
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. You want to see what he does with it.
For a nation raised on the hard rations of Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson playing simple 10-yard passes with the instep, this is perhaps the most important point of difference that Alexander-Arnold offers: a shift in tone and texture, a vision of what an England midfield might look like with a little panache, ambition and risk.
The last of these is perhaps the vital point. Alexander-Arnold is not the guy you pick if you want endless holding patterns and immaculate, error-free control of the game. The persistent doubts over his ability to cover space and track a man out of possession have followed him from right-back to central midfield. He will occasionally lose the ball, even if he rarely did so at Wembley last night. This is simply the nature of trying things.
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. His first touch is invariably an attempt to shift the ball out of his feet, and in those few split seconds the computer is already calculating. Where are the gaps going to open up? Who’s making the run? What is the move the opposition least expects at this point in time?
The sumptuous distribution we already knew about, and with a little more luck Alexander-Arnold might have had two assists. There was the short release to Rice that was chalked off by the video assistant referee. And earlier a staggering diagonal ball over the top that Rashford somehow contrived to fumble.
But all evening Alexander-Arnold was doing strange things, the sort of things that England defensive midfielders aren’t really supposed to do. Running with the ball. Little flicks and nudges out of trouble. Swerving banana passes out wide with the outside of the foot.
But in a sense the most telling moments of Alexander-Arnold’s evening were the ones in which he was not really involved at all. Early in the game there was a surging diagonal run into the right channel that Kieran Trippier spotted too late. Later, he pointed into the midfield space from which he wanted to launch a counterattack, only for Jordan Pickford to roll the ball elsewhere.
Really there is something vaguely ridiculous about this entire debate. Here is one of the most gifted technical footballers English football has produced in the past couple of decades, in superb form at one of the world’s best clubs, and still essentially on the outside looking in. But with Jude Bellingham now locked into the advanced playmaker role, Kalvin Phillips still short of minutes, and Jordan Henderson plying his trade in a novelty league, there is finally a sense of genuine jeopardy. Alexander-Arnold is ready for England. The real question is whether England are ready for him.