England may have dream new midfield trio after Alexander-Arnold shines in Malta win

It was a treat-sized Mal-teaser of how England might finally take that final step to glory. Yes, the opposition’s centre is so honeycomb-light that they probably named the chocolate after it. Certainly there are tougher challenges for an international midfielder to get his teeth into.

But Trent Alexander-Arnold gave England fans such an absorbing taste for what might be possible by Euro 2024, they kept up their appetite for it deep into the second half. Infamously, when England visited six years ago, most of the away fans had wandered off disparagingly into the night by half-time, bored and needing another drink.

But Alexander-Arnold was so full of fizz - thankfully not in the Jack Grealish sense - that it was late in the second half when many of them finally wandered off for a more celebratory tipple. In fairness, the Alexander-Arnold midfield switch had only lasted the 45 minutes when it was last tried in Andorra two years ago, but from the outset in Ta’Qali, it looked like it could be here to stay.

Just six minutes into the game, Alexander-Arnold skipped past two players on the wing and crossed into the heart of the box only to meet a disappointing lack of England players. Tonight, though, he was asked to do his damage from deeper and narrower.

A sublime clipped pass to Bukayo Saka two minutes later on the half-turn put the Arsenal winger clear and his cross forced Ferdinando Apap to turn the ball into his own net with Harry Kane lurking. England’s second also needed the assist of a deflection off a Malta player.

The shot originated from the boot of Alexander-Arnold himself 25 yards from goal and would have hit the target anyway. It was his first England goal since November 2018 and had him galloping around the field, hair bouncing effervescently with every stride. That languid gait took him next into the inside-left channel, from which he cut the ball back to Declan Rice.

When the West Ham man’s low shot was spilled, Kane did enough to get into the mix and invite Matthew Guillaumier to clatter into him. Inevitably, the England captain picked himself up to convert goal no. 56 from the spot. Players simply seemed to be enjoying playing around Alexander-Arnold.

Saka, in particular, has clearly been quick to strike a rapport and the shame for England was that his fierce shot in first-half injury time was his last act before coming off as a precaution having been clattered on more than one occasion. Phil Foden became the first of those celebrating Manchester City players to be called into action and when Kane missed a golden opportunity with a weakly-hit shot that was cleared off the line in the 60th minute, the replacements began in earnest.

It was Marc Guehi pushed to full-back, with Alexander-Arnold holding his midfield berth which gives the greatest hope that the transition at this level at least could be a permanent one even as the game rather petered away. As often with these encounters, it was hard to retain any sort of energy within the open bowl of the stadium.

England fans did begin to vacate the ground as those local lagers left - those remaining clearly had a more refined taste. The vintage turn and clip with the outside of the foot in one movement with which Alexander-Arnold picked out Callum Wilson in the 68th minute, for example - sadly to no avail this time.

A harsh VAR hand-ball penalty decision against Steve Borg, taken confidently by Callum Wilson, was one more small reward to those that stayed. These are small measures still, of course.

But after some of Grealish’s antics this week, perhaps that is exactly what is called for. Certainly, the potential final cocktail of Jude Bellingham, Rice and Alexander-Arnold is one we all nurse responsibly ahead of next summer.

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