England began their 2018 World Cup campaign with a Group G clash against Tunisia in Volgograd on Monday evening.
Although the expectation surrounding the Three Lions has been somewhat dimmer than in recent tournaments, it was nonetheless hoped that they would begin the finals with a win against the African side.
Indeed, they made the perfect start to proceedings as Harry Kane pounced on a rebounded Harry Maguire header with just over ten minutes on the clock. However, they could not turn their dominance into a second goal, and were punished when Kyle Walker’s flailing arm led to the concession on an equaliser via a Ferjani Sassi penalty ten minutes before half time.
The Three Lions huffed and puffed throughout the second half, but looked to be heading for a disappointing (but deserved) draw until Harry Kane, unmarked at the back post, headed home from a flicked-on corner in injury time.
But what did we learn from a match in which Harry Kane struck late to spare England’s blushes?
England can take positives from their bright start
England came flying out of the traps here, coming at Tunisia with all of the momentum and gusto of a side that wanted to get the job done as soon as possible. It looked as though the side were in for an enjoyable evening as Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard all looked bang up for it.
The goal was a justified reward for their efforts, as they finally made their early dominance pay with a goal from Harry Kane. From there, England should have put the game out of sight and it will have disappointed them greatly that it didn’t pan out that way.
They faded, and Southgate will speak to them about that, but for those opening stages, this was the England team that only the biggest optimists could have dreamed of. They were a confident, vibrant team without fear, a young side that should no sign of labouring under the shirt and not mindful of the consequences of failure – an affliction that has stifled so many England sides in the past.
If they can tap into that mentality again and harness it for the remainder of the campaign, then they will have done their country proud regardless of how far they go in this World Cup.
The drop in tempo, however, can’t have gone unnoticed
The bright start soon gave way to a more pedestrian approach, and that was the way England stayed almost until the very end of the match. Perhaps it was a sense of misguided hubris given their dominance in the period beforehand, but it was still jarring to see a very different England to the fast-paced, confident just minutes earlier.
They looked a side completely devoid of ideas as the game went on, running blindly into channels with nothing to aim for and nobody making space for themselves in dangerous areas.
In the end, that it didn’t matter was progress of sorts. England did their level best to throw it away and yet, thanks to their predator-in-chief Harry Kane, they still came way with three points. They came away with one foot in the next round. As tournament openers go, it’s better than some of the favourites have fared.
The selection of Ashley Young had both positives and negatives
Starting Ashley Young ahead of Danny Rose at left wing-back was a big call from Southgate, but one could certainly see the thinking behind it. The Man United converted winger is a threat going forward, and his importance at set pieces was evident with ten minutes gone when he found Harry Maguire from a corner in the buildup to the first goal. In a team short of set-piece specialists, Young’s inclusion made sense.
However, it also became clear as the match wore on that, aside from his usefulness in dead ball situations, Young did not play well here. Indeed, he was the weak link in the five-man midfield and Tunisia didn’t take long to figure that out. Time and again he was caught out of position and time and again he lost possession – and almost every time that happened, his response was to foul his opposite number in a forlorn attempt to win the ball back.
Southgate must decide if the set pieces really outweigh the negatives in Young’s game from open play – particularly in this 3-5-2 formation.
Tunisia were more confident than had been expected
In the preamble to this match, it was predicted that Tunisia would set up to contain and frustrate England, with a 0-0 draw seen as a positive result. Indeed, a resolute yet conservative midfield and Wahbi Khazri as the central striker suggested that this was the game plan.
And yet, Tunisia were much brighter than that. Their start was appalling, granted, and their defence probably should have been punished to a greater degree, but the more England dropped off, the more they pushed on and gained confidence. The goal still came against the run of play, but it gave Tunisia a bit of impetus after the restart.
Unfortunately for them, they simply had little in the way of a goal threat. The loss of star player Youssef Msakni was keenly felt here – and one gets the sense that the Al-Duhail forward would have made a big difference here – but a lack of invention meant that they couldn’t build on their momentum in midfield.
England should progress with ease from here
This was seen by many as the potential banana skin for England, with the greatest of respect to Tunisia. The African side were beatable but had the potential to make things very awkward, and facing them first could set the tone for the rest of the campaign.
By getting through it and earning the three points, England have seen off the main threat to their progression to the knockout stages. Panama shouldn’t be a problem, and Belgium aree practically shoo-ins to make the last 16, so this was seen as a way to kill of Tunisia’s chances of being a group rival before they could truly begin.
Forget the nature of the performance for one second, and just focus on the result for now. Six points will (almost certainly) be enough to see England through, and they are a large step closer tothat now.