England caretaker manager Gareth Southgate defended captain Wayne Rooney after Saturday’s 2-0 World Cup qualifier win over Malta.
First-half goals from Dele Alli and Daniel Sturridge were enough to earn the three points for Southgate’s side, but after the break England’s performance dropped significantly, to the extent that some sections of the crowd booed at the final whistle.
Rooney was singled-out for opprobrium by some of the 81,000 present — even before the game, his name booed by sections of the crowd when it was announced.
Rooney played in a deep midfield role, and despite bemoaning the slowness of England’s passing at times, of which Rooney seemed particularly guilty, Southgate seemed mystified at the treatment of the Manchester United man.
“I don’t understand it [the boos], but that seems to be the landscape,” Southgate said. “I’ve got no idea how that’s supposed to help him, for sure.
“His experience and leadership has been crucial throughout this week. It’s fascinating to get an insight into his world over the last 10 days. Every debate seems to focus on him.
The onus on him is enormous and the criticism of him is at times unfair. He ploughs on and captains his country with pride.”
Southgate, who called up Arsenal left-back Kieran Gibbs after Ryan Bertrand suffered an injury in the first half, seemed satisfied with the way his team played in the first half, but he admitted that after the break they could have been better.
“Subconsciously in the second half there might have been a feeling that the game was already won,” Southgate said. “We didn’t bomb forward as we might have done. There’s certainly room for improvement, but that’s not a bad place for us to be.”
However, Southgate emphasised how little time he has had to work with the squad, taking the job only 12 days ago after Sam Allardyce was ousted from the role.
“Given the situation we picked up,” he said, “we’ve come a hell of a long way to get everything together to give a performance where we knew we’d be in control of the game. We know we’ll get better, and I think the players would recognise that.
“I’ve seen teams having to work all preseason to get new ideas across, and we’ve had four days.
“I’ve got to be realistic about how quickly ideas can take. At times we moved the ball well, at times it was a bit too slow and at times we played it too long.
“I’ve played in games like that, when you know it’s very unlikely that you’ll lose, and as players at times you manage yourself a little bit. We created chances, and if we’d finished a few more of them then clearly the feeling would be a bit different.”
Malta manager Pietro Ghedin was satisfied with his team’s performance, despite the defeat.
“We stayed in good shape all of the game,” he said. “I’m very happy, although we lost the game. We gave everything we can.
“Maybe you are disappointed England didn’t score 10 goals,” he continued, when asked if his plan was only to frustrate their opponents. “You won the game. You should be happy.”
Malta’s man of the match was Surrey-born goalkeeper Andrew Hogg, who made a series of fine saves to help keep the score down.
“Thank you to him, because without him they could have scored more,” Ghedin said. “Even for me it was a surprise.”