Author: Ashley Munson
It’s tough sometimes being a supporter of the Maltese national team. We’re all proud of the way our players and staff go about their business but the moments of celebration have been few and far between for a while now, however, there is reason for optimism in the coming months and years but to understand the journey you need to appreciate where the team is today.
As things stand Malta are only above the Faroe Islands in group F of the 2020 European Championship qualifying table with three points – earned with a victory against the bottom side on match day one – and whilst mathematical qualification for the finals remains a possibility, the reality is that the dream is over with six matches still to play. Instead, Ray Farrugia, is tasked with building something that can take the nation forward in the longer term.
Malta’s record defeat was a 12-1 humbling at the hands of Spain in 1983 but the latest match between the pair was a much closer contest and, although the former world champions ran out 2-0 winners – thanks to an Alvaro Morata double – the Maltese display did go some way to proving they have the capability to stay in games with opposition of the highest quality. However, that defensive solidity will need to improve as their offensive play becomes more expressive as demonstrated in their four-goal loss to Romania last time out.
When the draw was made the Romania tie would have been earmarked as a fixture Malta could have taken something from, but a more offensive mind set struggled to produce a cutting edge – albeit there was some good play between the boxes – and the increased space between the lines was brutally exposed by the Romanians. Still, Farrugia had to take the blow of a heavy defeat that shouldn’t impact the strategy moving forwards.
A nation like Malta will nearly always have a fight on their hands against the superpowers of teams like Spain, France and Germany and a ‘park the bus’ mentality is needed to prevent embarrassment. Nonetheless, when it comes to playing lesser teams – that’s teams like Romania – the lack of experience in the attacking third poses a challenge and it’s one that has to be overcome if Malta are ever to reach a major final.
Against those teams, Malta set up to play more on the front foot and are more than capable of neat and tidy interchanges but in the moments that count, the split-second decision making to take the shot or play the killer pass isn’t quite sharp enough. It’s unpractised and means opportunities pass them by. This is where the Nations League will help Malta grow.
The inaugural Nations League didn’t quite go to plan with three defeats and three draws, but the competition not only presents a back door into the European Championships but also because of how the groups are drawn it means teams play others ‘on their level’. This means that Farrugia can start working on patterns of play in training and when match day arrives, his players will take to the field with confidence and those match winning passes and finishing touches will become second nature; at international level those milliseconds can make all the difference.
Right now, they are bottom to the betting markets, just like the Washingston Redskins in the NFL Super Bowl odds. A transformation won’t happen overnight, but the Nations League gives Malta a chance to actually develop their philosophy rather than just having their backs to the wall – and who knows, maybe in five years time Malta will finally be the underdog of a major finals, just like Iceland were in 2016 (and even qualified for World Cup 2018).