Gareth Southgate understood why England fans aired their frustrations during his side’s unconvincing win in Malta, but pointed out that “free-flowing champagne football” is rarely associated with qualifiers.
World Cup qualification remains in the Three Lions’ hands after a 4-0 win at the Ta’ Qali National Stadium, which kept their two-point cushion at the top of Group F intact ahead of Monday’s crunch clash with second-placed Slovakia.
Southgate’s men will need to up their game at Wembley after putting in a largely-underwhelming display against the side ranked joint 190th in the world, behind the likes of American Samoa, the Cook Islands, Brunei and Bangladesh.
Harry Kane’s second-half strike was followed by a late flurry of goals as Ryan Bertrand and Danny Welbeck scored before the Tottenham striker completed a flattering 4-0 win against Malta, who made life particularly tough for the visitors during a goalless first half.
England’s lack of inspiration and verve led many of the 3,700 travelling fans to chant “we’re f***** s***”, before a smattering of boos greeted the half-time whistle.
“Look, I think we have to accept that,” head coach Southgate said of that disquiet.
“I’ve played in nights like this and I’ve watched England on nights like this, and if you don’t get a couple of early goals the atmosphere can turn.
“But that’s part of wearing the shirt, we’ve got to be able to deal with that.
“We spoke before the game that if Germany were playing here, we’d probably look at the score and see 4-0 or something like that and think they’ve done a professional job.
“In the end, that’s what we’ve done in the end. It has taken a while to get the goals, but that’s a consequence of dominating the game, over 70 per cent possession.
“Yeah, you’d like to open them up a bit more, but there isn’t space to play against them, they’re 5-4-1, there’s very little space to play.
“When we got the ball into the areas that we’d worked on during the week, we managed to do that.
“I understand all of the reaction that we’ll get, but we have to stay focused as a group and Monday’s game will be completely different.”
Put to Southgate it is very rare for England supporters to turn on their team in such a way, he said: “Well, I’ve seen it happen.
“From our point of view, we have to focus on sticking to the plan, staying calm.
“I understand why (it happened) and I understand if we don’t score until late, the game feels different for everybody.
“But I’ve played in so many qualifiers and watched so many qualifiers, and I don’t remember many of them being free-flowing champagne football. It just hasn’t happened, especially when there’s no space to play.
“You have got to work your way into the opportunities.
“I’m a really pleased with what the players have done because they’ve kept their focus, kept calm, they haven’t taken on ridiculous shots from outside the box, which I have seen us do, which relieves the pressure.
“In the end, the build-up of pressure opposition mounts and you get your goals.”
Southgate said it was a “privilege” to work with Kane after his attacking impact at the end of a day when former England captain Wayne Rooney dominated the agenda after being charged with drink driving.
Asked if he had been in contact with the forward, Southgate simply replied: “No. I’ve been totally focused on today’s match.”
It was a game in which the scoreline did not reflect the play, albeit Malta’s head coach had no arguments with the end result.
“What can I say? England deserved to win, of course,” Pietro Ghedin said.
“We lost concentration after the first goal, and we were dead physically. We didn’t stay in the pitch. We were out.
“I was happy with the first half, but the game is 90 minutes, not 45.
“England are a very strong team who play for 90 minutes in front of our defenders. They deserved to win.”
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