Gareth Southgate admitted England were under par as a flat performance produced a 2-0 victory over Malta at Wembley.
A first-half Enrico Pepe own goal and a Harry Kane strike 15 minutes from time secured three points but the Three Lions struggled to produce the quality that secured Euro 2024 qualification at a canter.
Although Southgate, 53, was underwhelmed by the display, he refused to be too critical of his players.
He said: “If you don’t start games well it’s very difficult to pick it up and we didn’t. We know the level should be better and can be better.
“Those games you know you can win at a canter, the number of games these players are playing, it’s almost a self-regulation.
“We didn’t hit the heights we have done this calendar year.
“Not enough chances were created but I have been a player and I know exactly how those games feel.
We could have gotten three or four more with those decisions that went against us, but we did not create clear enough chances to merit it.
Trent Alexander-Arnold’s performance in the midfield was a positive aspect of a frustrating night at Wembley.
Along with Phil Foden the 25-year old Liverpool player played faster than his teammates and showed he was a good option for the middle of the field.
Southgate said: “Trent is a team of outstanding quality.”
He and Phil looked to be the ones who opened the game for us in the first-half.
The changes have brought a higher quality. Marc Guehi had a good back.