A brace from England captain, and seeming talisman, Harry Kane secured all three points for The Lions as they narrowly beat North African side, Tunisia, 2-1 on Monday. Yes, Belgium had a far more convincing win only hours earlier. Yes, England were victorious only through a late winner. Yet, given the way the tournament is unfolding, there is much to suggest that the England squad is well suited to this year’s World Cup.
First of all, let us examine England’s Monday-night opponents. It was clear to anyone who had actually been watching them pre-tournament that this was never likely to be an easy win.
Drawing with Portugal and losing very narrowly to Spain 1-0 in the run up to the competition marked them as maybe not the best team, but a difficult one to beat nonetheless. They are in fact the highest ranked African team at the tournament.
With a plethora of goal-scoring chances, England dominated the game and had little to show for it as expected when up against such a do-or-die defence (for a similar setup, see: Iran). However, the team showed the determination and character to seal the win despite being on the wrong side of some very poor refereeing decisions. As Marcus Rashford explained in his interview after the match, the way in which England achieved these points and broke the negative and stalwart defence of Tunisia was far more valuable than a crushing win. The players will know they can push for all three points against sluggish and brutal defensive teams.
England may have conceded a goal to Tunisia, but it was a penalty. Other than that, England looked defensively sound and comfortable around the back three/five. Jordan Pickford showed us just why he was picked, displaying a wonderous range of passing and composure. The centre backs played their roles effectively and were relaxed in possession, without slowing down the tempo of the game as has been done in previous teams.
For large parts of the game, there seemed to be little threat from Tunisia as Maguire was our big, aerial centre half, Stones as our David-Luiz like sweeper with deadly-efficient distribution while Walker continued to impress in his new role. Man-of-the-match was surely Kieran Tripper, who was seemingly always guarding the right flank, while remaining an option by the opposition by-line (creating more chances than anyone else in the game).
One would expect only Ashley Young to be rotated if Southgate decides a left footed Danny Rose would do a better job down that side of the pitch. England fans will have confidence in the defence that was set up on Monday night and Gareth Southgate seems to achieved a brilliant balance in the back going forward in this tournament.
As well as two penalties that should have been awarded, England had spells of creating many fine goal-scoring chances. This was especially prevalent before Dele Alli took a knock as him and Lingard looked devastating on the transition between defence and attack, scything through the opposition to lay off chances for one another or the two front men.
Sterling (somehow) managed to fluff his lines in a chance provided beautifully by Lingard that could have put us ahead very quickly in the game (if it were not scuffed as well as offside). Further, Lingard had two chances that, upon reflection he perhaps could have put away – driving a point-blank volley into the ground and just tapping the post after rounding the keeper intelligently. People seemed to call for Sterling to be replaced by Rashford on Sunday, but judging by the game, it would perhaps make sense to have the tricky Manchester City winger assume Lingard’s creative burden, whilst having Rashford make the runs off of Kane up top.
Off the bench
Unless he starts the game, Rashford will remain England’s key attacking substitute. As is the case at Manchester United, it is a privilege to have such a powerful and direct talent such as Rashford able to come off the bench. Not only this, but Chelsea’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek impressed all with his skillset coming off the bench. He looked composed and elegant on the ball despite his size and is proving to be a fantastic pick over the likes of Wilshere by Gareth Southgate. He was willing to run at players and cross into the dangerous areas, while also equally adept at threading through passes to provide service to the attacking players.
Whether these such players remain as effective substitutes or indeed earn themselves starting spots against Panama, it would seem that England are very well equipped across the whole pitch – which cannot be said about too many teams in Russia this summer.
England have a cutting-edge
England have shown the ability to creative huge amounts of quality chances, finish off games that are being shut down, and rely on effective rotation of the 23-man squad. Where teams such as Brazil and Argentina have lacked the cutting edge to finish off lesser opponents, England have not. Let us not also forget that the leaders of the group they would be drawn against are currently Japan and Senegal, rather than Columbia and Poland. It all looks good in the England camp for now.