Andorra at home on a sleepy Sunday evening in north-west London: it is not exactly an occasion that screams of flares up backsides, ticketless fans storming the turnstiles and beer bottles flying through the air on Wembley Way.
Unsurprisingly nobody tried to force their way in to watch England’s second string cruise past the world’s 156th best team in a match devoid of any real competitive edge. Instead the mood was light and relaxed for England’s first game at Wembley since the disorder that marred the Euro 2020 final against Italy, almost as if those who were present were the people who had missed out on tickets to Soccer Aid the night before.
There were no boos for the Andorran anthem; no jeers for the teams when they took the knee before kick-off. After 35 minutes, with England in control and a goal to the good, the fans behind Sam Johnstone’s goal were keeping themselves amused with a paper airplane contest that at times looked more interesting than anything happening on the pitch. At the end Harry Maguire, an unused substitute, gladly gave his shirt to Andorra’s kitman. It was that kind of evening.
Nobody was under any illusions about the total lack of jeopardy. Everybody knew that England were going to record their fifth straight win in World Cup qualifying. It was a complete mismatch, even though Gareth Southgate made 11 changes to the team that smashed Hungary, and at times it was hard to work out precisely why this game had to take place.
All the same for a young crowd this was still a chance to glimpse the heroes of the summer. There were loud, pointed cheers for Bukayo Saka, who wept after missing the decisive penalty kick against Italy in July, and much excitement when Southgate decided to inject some urgency into a slightly meandering second-half display by introducing Harry Kane, Jack Grealish and Mason Mount.
England had slightly lost their way before that star trio entered the fray. Southgate had taken the opportunity to pick an experimental line-up, starting Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield and giving Patrick Bamford his first cap, but his side rather sauntered through the opening period, a lack of rhythm evident as they tried to pick their way through a determined and organised Andorran defence.
It was not an easy debut for Bamford, who had few sights of goal before making way for Kane just after the hour. There were a few neat touches from the Leeds striker, but he will be disappointed to have fluffed his big moment in the 47th minute, firing over when he should have scored. Aged 28, time is not on Bamford’s side. It felt like a chance he needed to take if he is to jump above Dominic Calvert-Lewin as Kane’s deputy.
At least Jesse Lingard was more accurate in the 18th minute, giving England the lead with a low finish. Significantly it was Jude Bellingham who sparked the move for the goal, combining with Saka, their teenager partnership a particular highlight of the first half. At times Andorra did not know what to do with Bellingham, who was all driving runs and fancy footwork from deep before his withdrawal in the second half, by which point Southgate had once again seen that the 18-year-old is going to be a vital member of his squad in Qatar next year.
There is of course a note of concern over England’s midfield, for all the control offered by the double pivot of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips during the Euros. They were exposed when Italy’s Jorginho and Marco Verratti turned the screw in the final, seizing the ball and taking possession away from Rice and Phillips, reminding Southgate that England still look vulnerable when they come up against high-grade midfields.
There is no doubt that Southgate needs to try something different. Yet while it will surely not be long before Bellingham is ready to become a regular starter, the jury remains out on whether Alexander-Arnold is suited to playing in central midfield. The Liverpool defender has the general tools – short and long-range passing, a decent shot, a wicked cross – but this remains an unfamiliar position for him and he looked a little lost during the first half.
Alexander-Arnold, who has been described as “a playmaker at right-back” by Southgate, was back in defence at the start of the second half. It was a sign of England’s flexibility that he had swapped positions with Reece James, who bent an effort against the bar in the 49th minute. Andorra were holding firm at that stage, keeping England at arm’s length.
Inevitably, though, they tired in the end. Kane made it 2-0 from the spot, Lingard added a third and the crowd got the ending they wanted when Saka headed home, exorcising some of the ghosts of the summer.