1) These are supposed to be no-win situations. Group stage matches against comparative minnows are international football’s banana skins, but they’re actually worse than that. Win and everyone says “Yeah, but”, lose or draw and enter crisis mode. At least jumping over a banana is fun.
But on Sunday, England entered into a no-win situation and still won emphatically. Panama are a rotten team who behaved pretty appallingly, but the right response to that is to make them look foolish and generate more of your own goodwill. England scoring more than four goals in a World Cup match for the first time in their history was impressive. Doing so before half-time was the stuff of dreams. Way to harness that optimism.
If England are not going to win the World Cup (oh god oh god, I said ‘if’), this tournament is best used to rebuild relationships between supporters and the team. A nation had become sadly apathetic, the accusation that we cared far more than them. Southgate’s remit was not to create a team capable of challenging for the World Cup in 2018, but to build a squad that England’s supporters could be proud of. Less than two years after his temporary appointment, he has at least succeeded in that task.
Hopefully, Russia can help turn that apathy on its head. Success or failure probably depends on whether England reach the quarter-finals or lose in the last-16, but even then World Cups can leave lasting impressions beyond the disappointment of eventual exit. In two, five and even ten years’ time, England supporters up and down the country will remember where they watched, who they met and what they ate and drank when England scored six. This stuff matters.
2) It’s tempting to play the joyless drone and say that England only beat Tunisia and Panama, and there is clearly the semblance of a point in there somewhere. Belgium and whoever England’s last-16 opponents may be will certainly provide a far sterner test.
But that accusation of flat-track bullying is a compliment to a country that for too long were the ones getting picked on. Egypt in 1990, Nigeria in 2002, Trinidad and Tobago and Ecuador in 2006, Algeria, USA and Slovenia in 2010; England have grown accustomed to frustration against countries that they should have swept aside.
If this was easy, England made it so. If this was one-sided, England’s professionalism and ruthlessness weighted the odds even more heavily in their favour. If we are uncertain only whether England will finish second or first in their group with one game still to go, something has gone very right indeed. We watched the last 40 minutes of an England match at the World Cup without any nerves or tension. Could get used to that.
3) And whatever Panama’s flaws, the first half was absorbing and astonishing from England. They started in exactly the same mood as against Tunisia, pressing the ball to force mistakes from weaker players and then looking to take advantage. They should have been awarded a penalty after two minutes and then scored twice in 15 from set pieces.
Just as we were wondering if that was England’s exclusive method of scoring – it’s amazing how quickly you get greedy – Jesse Lingard curled home a majestic third. By the time half-time, and 5-0, had arrived, we were in a state of constant giggles about just how well England had dealt with a potentially tricky solution.
Half-time score in Belgium vs Panama? 0-0. Half-time score in England vs Panama? 5-0. There should be no embarrassment in being bloody proud of that. Whoever the opponent.
4) Writing a column in the Nottingham Post before the game, broadcaster Darren Fletcher recalled speaking to Southgate on a train on the way to watch an NBA basketball game about being influenced by other sports in his preparation for the World Cup. If that sounds a little odd, given that football is so different to other sports, the answers were illuminating.
Southgate explained that the nature of basketball was interesting to him, because of the way it was five-on-five and yet players always managed to find space around the basket. He spoke to coaches about the timings of their runs and the way they could legally screen opposition players to create pockets of space, and studied footage to see if he could transpose that to football.
In particular, Southgate believed he could use similar theories with free-kicks from out wide and from corners. Players would offer dummy runs and feint in one direction before moving, each player having strict instructions and so too the set-piece taker. Watching England’s fourth goal on Sunday, you could see that theoretical plan in wonderful practicality.
Southgate is not the perfect manager, but it is a long time since England have played in a style and system where the team’s coaching so apparent. Much of the credit for that lies with Mauricio Pochettino, Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Jose Mourinho et al, but Southgate has sprinkled his own gold dust. These little things matter.
5) Scoring early and scoring well mattered, too. It was 30 degrees at pitchside in the stadium when the game kicked off, not hot enough for FIFA’s mandatory water breaks to be introduced. But these were still uncomfortable conditions for a team who has trained in the comparatively cool climate of Repino.
Before the game, Southgate insisted that he had no problem with England leaving it as late as Thursday, if that proved necessary to get the job done. That’s the obvious party line, of course, but in reality the manager will have been mightily pleased to have the game finished after 40 minutes. In a potentially month-long exercise, taking the chance to play at half-pace for half a match is a blessed relief.
6) Underdogs typically generate a huge amount of goodwill. Amongst neutrals, it is likely that the weaker team is more favoured. We like underdog stories and root for them because it subconsciously reminds us of our own struggles to thrive. So it’s a strong effort for Panama, probably the weakest team in this competition, to erode their goodwill within the first 20 minutes of their second game.
There is no blame attached to any team that chooses to play defensively, because that is the best way to counteract a stronger team. But there is blame attached when your principal strategy is to kick, elbow and push your opponents. The first half was an embarrassment, midfielders tripping and holding and defenders grappling at every set piece. Mercifully, the officials clamped down on the violence.
7) In fact, Panama actually hampered themselves with the strategy. We had been told to expect rough treatment and that is precisely what transpired, but on the few occasions that they tried to play the ball through midfield with two or three-touch football, they were able to cause England problems. Perhaps they focused too much on what England were rather than what Panama could be.
Whatever the disappointment over their physicality, it was still brilliant to see Panama’s supporters break into celebrations of joy when Felipe Baloy scored the consolation. It’s easier to be patronising about smaller nations enjoying a moment that will live with them for years when your team is 6-0 up, but Panama’s achievement was in reaching these finals despite the odds being stacked against them. Now to try and claim their first ever World Cup point against Tunisia. And play some football.
8) Harry bloody Kane, then. A man who has now captained his country seven times and scored 11 times in the process. The first England player since Gary Lineker to score a World Cup hat-trick and only the third in our history. Everything he touches in an England shirt turns to goals. Was it a good hat-trick? Goodness no. Does it matter? What do you think?
To repeat the point from the Tunisia match: Kane received some bizarre criticism for joking that Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick against Spain had put the pressure on him to win the Golden Boot, as if he was somehow being selfish. Even if that was true – and it isn’t – some of the best strikers in the history of the game have been ego-driven and ruthless. This is a profession that demands it.
It is that drive that makes Kane compare himself to Ronaldo and insist that he can aim for such greatness. In the build-up to this tournament, critics were pointing out his lack of major tournament goals. Five in his first two matches of World Cup football should shut them up for a while.
“I’m so proud of the boys,” England’s captain said after the final whistle. “We’re just enjoying being here. They started well but we’ve been working on our set-pieces, working on how we want to play, and it’s all coming together. To do it this way is special.” He’s bloody right, too.
9) So here’s a question: Can a penalty ever be a good goal? Does the inherent favouring of the taker make it a no-win situation?
Kane wishes to offer his own evidence with two exhibits from Sunday’s game. Despite being deliberately taunted by Panamanian goalkeeper and defenders, and having the pressure piled upon him to score his penalties before the game was truly ended as a contest, Kane produced two sensational spot-kicks. Two parts Alan Shearer, one part Ruud van Nistelrooy.
When you watch a striker score a penalty in such emphatic manner, the goalkeeper never getting within two feet of the ball, it makes you wonder how professionals ever fail to score them. The answer, like everything else with Kane, is hard work and practice.
10) But Kane was not England’s best player. That honour fell to Jesse Lingard, and he’ll probably go and curl this into the top corner too. The Manchester United midfielder was magnificent, confident in possession and hard working without the ball. His early substitution – at the same time as his captain – was a huge compliment from his manager. With Alli injured, Lingard is worth wrapping up in cotton wool.
Lingard is perhaps the perfect poster boy of this England team, not part of the first-team picture two years ago and yet forcing his way to the front of the queue thanks to his performances at club level around world-class players. He is likeable, cheeky and smiley, indicative of a mood that surrounds this group of players.
When Southgate spoke about “a group of mates” going to the World Cup to do their best, this is what he meant. When was the last time you saw England’s players enjoying themselves in big games, rather than cramping up?
Lingard is also a role model in the purest sense of the word, a player who kids have an affinity with and a young man who grew up in Warrington, plays for one of the biggest clubs in the world and is now thriving for his country. Get on that.
11) There will not be many words of negativity against England in these conclusions, but allow me to piss ever so slightly on your chips. There were still moments of uncertainty and panic in England’s defence. Passes were misplaced and runs not spotted, particularly before England scored their second goal. Better finishing may have punished us.
See too the frustration in Jordan Pickford’s face when Baloy scored Panama’s consolation goal. Goalkeepers judge themselves on the number of clean sheets they keep, and Baloy was allowed to run free into the penalty area and slide home his shot. In hot weather and during an uncompetitive match these are only minor niggles, but defensive concentration is a difficult thing to switch on and off.
Southgate fully agreed, and his post-game words were of chastisement: “I didn’t particularly like the performance if I’m honest,” he said. “I didn’t like the start and I didn’t like the goal at the end. I’m being hypercritical.”
Clearly it made no difference to the final score, but it will gnaw away at Southgate. This was not perfection.
12) Raheem Sterling’s critics may well not agree with the decision, but it was the right call to start him again. Even if you consider that he was not very good against Tunisia, Sterling was part of Southgate’s first-choice team for England’s first match. Having won the game, and played very well in patches, why change it?
There is always a knee-jerk reaction after England’s major tournament matches from supporters, and I’m as guilty of that as anyone. But Southgate has a plan and only injury concerns are likely to alter that plan. Dele Alli’s injury allowed for the in-form Ruben Loftus-Cheek to start, also giving England a little more physicality in midfield, but otherwise nothing was altered.
Consider too Sterling’s confidence. Having been attacked by sections of our tabloid media, being left out of England’s team now would only damage his morale. Surely giving him a second chance against the weakest team in the group causes no problem, particularly as he can now be rested against Belgium and Marcus Rashford given a start and a chance to impress?
We are not talking about a duff player here. We are discussing the second highest-performing English player in the Premier League last season, who is struggling slightly for form at international level. Getting Sterling at his peak in this tournament will be key to England’s chances of surpassing reasonable expectation. Why would you not want to maximise the chances of that happening?
Southgate was proved emphatically right. Sterling was not England’s best player but he was far more involved in attacking play and generally buoyed by the margin of the victory. Imagine if he had dropped to the bench and watched on as his teammates did the same.
13) The same is true of Danny Rose and Ashley Young. Again, Young was one of England’s weaker players against Tunisia, and many insisted that Rose must be brought into the team at his expense. To repeat, Southgate deliberated long and hard before the tournament about his first XI and settled on this. So why change now? One of the characteristics to admire in Southgate is his calm, measured personality. No meltdowns or root-and-branch reviews here.
This will hopefully be a long tournament for England. There will be injuries, fatigue and losses of form. All 23 players are important in their own way. But having a manager who has courage in his own conviction and faith in players to make good on his trust is a hugely positive thing.
14) Having been tortured by Seven Nation Army for too long, and as a supporter of a club that continued to play Chelsea Dagger after every goal as if unaware of the great cultural wrong that was being committed, there is something deeply wonderful about Three Lions blaring out over the tannoy after an England goal. It gave me butterflies in my stomach and hope in my heart. More of this please.
15) Southgate now has a decision to make when Alli is fit. Loftus-Cheek was not the standout player in England’s win, but he offers greater midfield discipline than the man he replaced.
Against Panama and Tunisia, that does not matter. England were able to dominate possession and territory and the opposition did not possess enough of a counter-attacking threat to necessitate playing anyone to support Jordan Henderson.
Against Belgium and thereafter, Southgate must make the call whether to continue the freeform attacking shape with Lingard and Alli roaming behind Kane and Sterling, or add the physicality of Loftus-Cheek.
The danger is that, against a better attacking unit that is quicker in transition from defence to attack, Henderson may be left exposed in the same way Sami Khedira was against Mexico for Germany. That’s particularly true given that England’s shape is similar to Germany’s, with Kieran Trippier pushed up as high as Joshua Kimmich.
During the build-up to the World Cup, Southgate promised that England would constantly play on the front foot. But there’s a balance to be found between attacking and naive football. That’s why he gets paid a lot of money to make the hard calls, and not me.
16) Thoughts will now inevitably turn to whether or not England should try and finish second in Group G to try and engineer a safer route through the competition, and Roberto Martinez has already admitted that Belgium will make wholesale changes for Thursday’s game.
Personally, I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of deliberately suffering a negative result. Firstly, Southgate has engineered a mood of optimism in this camp that they can beat any team they encounter. How does that sit with deliberately avoiding teams, thereby admitting that they are likely to beat us? By finishing above Belgium in the group, England send a message to other countries that we are not fearful of anyone.
Just as important is that engineering your path through a tournament is a risky business. Mexico have looked better than Germany, Croatia better than Brazil. There were celebrations when England drew Iceland in the last-16 of Euro 2016, and look how that ended. Momentum is also crucial in a major tournament, and we must not risk having the wind taken out of our sails.