16 Conclusions: England 2-1 Tunisia

Date published: Monday 18th June 2018 9:09

1) These are the days of our lives. Watching the sights and sounds of the World Cup is a deeply pleasurable experience, but we are not merely here for enjoyment. After four days of drinking in the World Cup mood via television marathons, podcasts, articles and excited chats with excited mates, it was time to get nervous and tense again. And how. And bloody how.

Watching your club or country play can never be a purely enjoyable experience. I’m tempted to say that those who do enjoy it can’t care enough, but it is possible that they have simply managed to channel some mystical calm. The rest of us watch between fingers and mutter blasphemes and words of encouragement through gritted teeth. The more it matters, the worse it gets. And what could matter more than the World Cup?

There are plenty of England supporters who have grown gradually apathetic over the fortunes of this team – so many times bitten, permanently shy. But even the most stubborn pessimist must concede that Gareth Southgate has created a likeable and progressive team. Some of the nerves before this tournament were unusually selfless – you want this side to do so well.

The raging pre-tournament optimism was not borne out of a belief that England can win the World Cup, more that we can have a team of which we can be proud. If you can’t enter a major tournament with hope in your heart, what’s the point of international football at all? And if you don’t get nervous when that national anthem kicks in – patriot or not – there’s something wrong with you.


2) Before we continue, England deserved their victory, however late that scream-inducing winning goal came. Using statistics as evidence can be misleading, but England had eight shots on target to Tunisia’s one. They dominated territory and dominated possession.

It’s concerning how much England slowed down after half-time, but that does not change the reality of the match situation. One team turned up to win and the other to stop their opponent winning. In whatever circumstances the former is successful in their efforts, there is cause for celebration.

England have won their first game at a World Cup for the first time since 2006 and scored more than once in their first game at a World Cup for the first time since 1998 when they beat…Tunisia. The reaction will not and should not be purely positive, but England are one victory against Panama from a place in the knockout stages.


3) The only controversial team selection from Southgate was the preference of Ashley Young over Danny Rose at left-back. Some reports suggested that Rose’s fitness was still a concern, which makes sense, but it is still a slight shame that Southgate created a three-man defence to get the best out of two excellent wing-backs in Rose and Kyle Walker, and yet we started our first World Cup match with neither playing in that position

Harry Maguire was picked over Gary Cahill – and personal preference would have reversed that decision – but it is hard to criticise Southgate on that measure. He has extolled the virtues of choosing younger, hungrier England players who have no experience of tournament failure. Picking a 25-year-old who spent Euro 2016 following England around France over a 32-year-old who has won one of his seven international tournament matches should not be considered a shock.


4) If we demanded – and Southgate promised – that England made a fast start, he stayed true to his word. The ball was immediately passed faster than we have come to expect at major tournaments, the players aware that allowing Tunisia time to settle into the game would only make them stronger.

Raheem Sterling was guilty of a bad miss within the first three minutes, getting the ball trapped under his feet, but Jesse Lingard had been flagged offside anyway. Two minutes later it was Lingard himself thwarted, a wonderful Mouez Hassen save deflecting the ball wide after a scramble in the penalty area. The move had been started by a fine raking pass around the corner by Jordan Henderson, who was given far too much space in the opening 20 minutes.


5) If this is the last we are to see of Hassen in Russia, he may be the player to appear for the shortest time in a major tournament and yet still earn a big move. The 23-year-old was on trial at Southampton last year, and spent last season on loan from Nice to Ligue 2 Châteauroux. Nice might want to check the expiry date on that contract.

Having denied Lingard, Hassen then flung himself to meet John Stones’ header from Young’s corner, pawing it away from goal. The most striking saves – think David Seaman against Sheffield United or Peter Schmeichel on numerous occasions – are those where a goalkeeper manages to impart an extraordinary amount of strength with a single hand to push the ball away from the line.

Unfortunately for Hassen – and mercifully for England – Tunisia were only level for a second. Harry Kane was the first to react to the loose ball with the goalkeeper stranded on the floor, and England had the lead. That major tournament ‘goal drought’ – four games at Euro 2016 – is over.



6) At that point, England were rampant. If Young was slightly sedated at left wing-back, turning back onto his right foot as is customary rather than hitting the byline, on the other wing Trippier made up for it. He constantly overlapped and got in behind Ali Maaloul, or provided the pass that allowed Lingard to do the same.

Trippier’s other notable first-half attribute was his set-piece taking, this time mirrored by Young on the left. England’s abject elimination at the hands of Iceland in 2016 was not caused by our woeful set-piece taking, but it certainly became the symbol of our failure. Kane taking corners will hopefully never be a major tournament occurrence again.

Against Tunisia – and aided by defensive flaws – England were dangerous from almost every set-piece and scored both of their goals indirectly via that route. You’ll have to check the last time England scored twice from corners in a World Cup match, but I’m hazarding a guess at never.


7) It’s an opportune time to say this, but Trippier was the game’s best player. That’s great for him, but also for Southgate who gambled significantly on the Spurs wing-back playing in Walker’s usual role. Just as at club level – although in markedly different circumstances – Trippier has taken his chance to step into Walker’s breach.

One of the most endearing things about England under Southgate’s management is that the team is built on a meritocracy. No longer are there rubber-stamped places for the boys, or a guaranteed quota of big-club representatives. Trippier is the perfect example that club form will lead to international opportunity. Make the most of that opportunity, and you can star at a World Cup.



8) But this is England, and even before Tunisia’s equaliser there were signs of defensive panic. Harry Maguire played a rotten ball across defence after he had been caught in possession on the left of his own penalty area, while Henderson occasionally looked isolated when Tunisia countered. A confusion between Lingard and Young almost allowed another chance.


9) It took a moment of stupidity. Walker might consider that the penalty given against him was soft, but there can be no serious arguments at its award. His arm was flailing and made contact. It may have looked worse on slow-motion replay, but referee Wilmar Roldan did not even require the assistance of VAR to make his decision.

The pertinent question is why Walker did not just defend the cross. He was faced with only one opponent and the ball was over-hit, so danger was not serious. These are the decisions that can define matches. He will have given Kane a warm post-match embrace.


10) But – and I’m about to get angry here – if you give a penalty for Walker’s arm, you have to also give a penalty when Kane is dragged down in the box by a rugby tackle. And that description contains no hyperbole for effect.

The most farcical aspect of the non-decision is that the VAR team examined the incident and decided that there was no foul committed. How can that possibly be the case, given the pictures we saw?

This was not a flaw of VAR, you understand – the system works. Kane was fouled in the box and the referee did not see it, so the team watching the video could watch it. The flaw lies in the decisions then made by those officials.


11) It wasn’t the only time that England were fouled on set pieces. Time and again Kane was being held as corners and free-kicks were delivered.

Referee Roldan twice delayed the taking of them to warn the players in the penalty area of their responsibilities, something I never understand. Why do professional footballers get told by a referee not to break the rules in this situation, and no other? Just penalise them when they do it.


12) The refereeing decisions might have been infuriating, but England had been warned about Tunisia’s propensity for more general time-wasting and specifically making the most of contact in a bid to run down the clock. This has been a tactic of this team for some time.

Given that information, several England players were guilty of stupid decision-making when nudging opponents who were protecting the ball. Young was the most obvious, three times allowing a defender to fall over the ball and gain a pressure-releasing free-kick. Every time he shouted in complaint towards the referee. Every time he failed to learn the lesson.



13) This was not Sterling’s night. He occasionally beat his man and linked up once or twice with Kane in the second half before his substitution, but in the main he failed to get as close to goal as he does with Manchester City. If that’s partly because of Kane’s domination as a central striker who wants every chance – and why not – it leaves Sterling drifting out wide more often than running centrally.

Sterling also flourished last season at City in a team that tried to attack on the counter; he predominantly played facing the goal. With England, particularly against teams who sit back and defend, Sterling more often than not receives the pass to feet but with back to goal. His task is to turn his man and dribble past him rather than run onto the ball.

There is also a fear that Sterling’s confidence is fragile, hardly surprising given the last month. If he takes his first chance of the match or quickly beats his man and creates danger, you can expect the same to follow. But if Sterling’s first notable chance is missed, the fear creeps in.

It would be no surprise if Sterling was left out against Panama, and one solution could be to pick Ruben Loftus-Cheek and push Dele Alli further up the pitch. If Marcus Rashford’s introduction was welcomed as the likely game-changer, it was Loftus-Cheek who actually played that role.


14) England were far less intense during the second half, whether due to the heat or beset by the fear of failing to make it count. It was most notable out of possession, with the high press of the first 20 minutes absent from the 50th minute onwards.

If it was indeed a question of slight fatigue, England need to find a temporary Plan B for the knockout stages, assuming they get that far. Being so passive – even only for 10-15 minutes – without the ball when you only have a single holding central midfielder could see us being overpowered against better passing sides.

With the ball, England were slower still. This was the opposite of Belgium’s performance earlier on Monday; they started dreadfully but quickened in the latter stages as Panama tired. In the second half, England were taking longer and longer over each pass, hoping for a mistake rather than forcing one. That allows even a tired defence to get back into a shape that makes them hard to break down.


15) But slow passing is far less frustrating than England’s profligacy in front of goal. If Tunisia can count themselves fortunate to have held on for as long as they did, heroic defending and good fortune was aided by some shonky finishing. Sterling has already been mentioned, but Lingard and Alli were just as guilty. Even Stones – England’s best central defender on the night – miskicked a volley when it looked easier to score.

This is nothing new for England. Over their last nine games, Southgate’s team have had 99 shots and scored ten goals. It’s true that it’s better to have created chances and missed them than never to have created them at all, but that conversion rate is simply not good enough if England want to go deep into this competition. We must learn to be more clinical.


16) And then, just as we were all losing a little bit of faith and busy cancelling football’s return ticket home, up stepped Kane again. The striker received some ridiculous flak on Saturday from some quarters after saying in a press conference that Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick against Spain had put the pressure on him for the Golden Boot, but why on earth would you not want your leading striker to aim for that award? Kane is in with a chance, and you just try and substitute him now.

Kane was not particularly effective from open play against Tunisia. Like Sterling – and Rashford when he came on – he was crowded out by holding midfielders and central defenders who virtually played in the same area of the pitch. But he remains England’s Mr Right Place, Right Time, and that is no fluke. Two goals from a total of five yards from goal at a World Cup? Sounds like a certain Mr Lineker.

Suddenly, the negativity dissipated. Suddenly we had hope not of eventual glory but hope of progress and faith in players who are as desperate for this to work as we are. On the touchline, Southgate didn’t jig like the great Sir Bobby Robson but he roared in celebration and hugged his coaches.

This was vitally important, not just for qualification from this group stage. This shared mood of England optimism is precious, but it is also as delicate as crepe paper. One draw to an unfancied opponent can rip through the cheer and bring dark clouds to the picnic.

But for now, England are buoyant. Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil and Germany failed to win their opening match of this World Cup against varying standards of opponent, but England did. Pass me the face paint and direct me to the nearest fountain – there’s a tournament to enjoy.

Daniel Storey

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