By James Reid at Wembley
Gareth Southgate insisted he had no worries about his England side despite a lacklustre 2-0 victory at home to Malta.
An Enrico Pepe own goal gave the hosts an early lead before the Three Lions laboured at Wembley, with Trent Alexander-Arnold registering his side’s first shot on target in the 64th minute.
Harry Kane sealed the win 15 minutes from time before Declan Rice saw another chalked off for offside but it did little to hide what was a laboured showing in England’s final home game of the year.
But Southgate showed no sign of panic and admitted these performances are par for the course of a lengthy season, particularly with Euro 2024 qualification already secured.
“It is not a worry because I think sometimes when players have so many matches, it is almost self-regulating as a player,” he said.
“You know there is a certain level you need to hit to beat Italy here, and you know that you don’t have to hit that level to win today’s game.
“Although you would think everybody would be at the same level at the same time, that is not the reality of football.
“I have played in those matches myself and there are nights where subconsciously you just do enough to win.”
With tickets for next summer’s Euros in Germany already punched thanks to last month's victory over Italy, Southgate made a number of changes including Fikayo Tomori as a makeshift left-back and Alexander-Arnold in midfield.
And the England boss admitted while his side did not fully click, he was pleased with some individual performances.
He added: “We didn’t start the game well and I have been in football for 35 years and if you don’t start games well it is really difficult to pick it up.
“We needed to show better quality with the ball but we were also a bit stretched without it.
“We were a bit disjointed in our pressing at times so we know it was not the level we want to be at, not the level we need to be at but equally this group of players have been exceptional and I am not going to start getting into their ribs too much about a performance like tonight.
“We made a few changes, we didn’t hit the levels we would liked to have but we managed to win the game.
“We have won comfortably, as we should, scored a lovely second goal and there were some individual performances that were very positive.
“I thought Trent was very, very good. Him and Phil [Foden] in midfield in the first half were the two that looked like opening things up.
“I thought Marc Guehi had a very mature performance again, he has really grown as an international footballer and t was lovely to get Cole Palmer on and give him a feel of things and I thought he looked very comfortable in the environment.”
England complete their qualification fixtures away at North Macedonia on Monday and Southgate revealed selection issues will largely be governed by fitness, with Marcus Rashford replaced after an hour after picking up a knock.
“A lot of our decision-making is physical as much as anything at the moment,” Southgate said.
“We need to look at where we are after this game in terms of any knocks, we have some fresh players to come in, get the balance of the team right and then assess if there is anything we want to see on Monday night’s game.
“It is good for us to be away from Wembley again in a challenging environment because that is where we are going to be next summer.”