Perhaps the first thing to mention ahead of England’s final home game of the year is the crowd. England have already qualified for Euro 2024 but the visit of Malta is a sell-out at Wembley. There is still the formality of securing top spot in Group C to confirm, and with it an important top seeding at next month’s Euros draw, but by virtue of wrapping up their business early, Gareth Southgate’s side have given themselves a largely meaningless double-header against Malta and North Macedonia to conclude the calendar year.
Or at least, in previous years, it may well have been. The thing is, this England is quite good. They may even be fun, and there was certainly a sense of commanding confidence in the air as Southgate’s side swept Italy aside last month. Much of that came from Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane, who represent what is so exciting about England at the moment. When was the last time England were so strong in attacking areas? When was the last time those players looked so comfortable replicating their club form within the national team?
Let’s be honest: Malta was a tough sell, but the England fans have responded and it is perhaps indicative of the talents that are now at Southgate’s disposal. England are now the show, not that the full version of it will be required against the side ranked 171st in the world. Southgate, though, does not have a full squad to choose from and so, with only four games to go until he names his final selection of 23 for the Euros, England’s squad is one that has a hint of the experimental about it, or at least the untested.
The most exciting new face is of course Cole Palmer, brought in by Southgate as part of an uncapped trio that includes the blossoming Chelsea star, his former Manchester City teammate Rico Lewis and the Aston Villa centre-back Ezri Konsa. Given Southgate’s selections since the World Cup, however, it is not a pivot he would have made by choice. But Bellingham, James Maddison, Levi Colwill, Lewis Dunk and Callum Wilson have all withdrawn due to injury, leaving Southgate a group of 10 players in his squad with 10 caps or less to their names.
It remains to be seen if Palmer will be afforded the chance to make his senior England debut, following an impressive start to the season that has seen the 21-year-old become a symbol of Chelsea’s restored hope. The England team he joins is at a different stage to Chelsea, however. Until this week, England squads have not been picked with long-term ambitions in mind. Southgate is building towards the end of his reign and there has been a certain logic to him sticking with a core group of senior players before Euro 2024.
If the England manager has been accused of showing too much loyalty to some, namely Jordan Henderson and Kalvin Phillips, he is able to offer continuity and consistency as a counter-argument. Also, with Southgate’s contract expiring at the end of the Euros, it is completely up to him if the focus is only on the next seven to eight months. It is perhaps why Southgate has seemingly decided not to bring Raheem Sterling or James Ward-Prowse into the fold, despite their club form. If football reasons are the factor, it could be Southgate has already made his mind up.
It leaves Palmer as a curious case, called up at an interesting time. Southgate’s decisions over the past year or so suggest it could already be too late for Palmer to make his England squad, given the established options ahead of him. But Bellingham and Maddison’s absences offer an opportunity to a player who has admitted this week that he sees himself as a forward who can play across several positions, including as attacking midfielder and false nine. His tendency to float and then burst could dovetail well with Kane, just as Bellingham has done.
The problem for Palmer, however, is just how much can be learned from a fixture against Malta. The visitors have lost all seven of their qualifying matches so far this campaign and Southgate is likely to offer chances to his fringe players, just as he did in the 1-0 win over Australia last month. Palmer could impress, but in an entirely different team to the one that he would need to show he can perform in to influence Southgate’s thinking. The same could be said for Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jarrod Bowen and Ollie Watkins.
It could be that Southgate finds more value from Friday night’s match by going strong, with only a couple of changes from what would be his first-choice team. It would be a more useful environment for assessing Palmer, who has shown in his first two months with Chelsea to possess excellent temperament and ability, or Alexander-Arnold, who has long demonstrated how his quality in attacking areas can be used when England have the majority of possession, or even Lewis, who is clearly ahead of Phillips in the eyes of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.
But suddenly, a pair of largely meaningless qualifiers offer a possible glimpse of the future, and if Southgate has been hesitant to make too many sudden changes in recent months, Palmer now has the chance to accelerate one. Though it may not have been Southgate’s plan, giving Palmer his opportunity in an established team and embracing the unknown would be one way of sending England’s fans home from Wembley with something to remember about the night Malta came to town.