Tunisia represent the kind of opposition that always end up causing England problems at major tournaments. Gareth Southgate’s squad is well-equipped for facing opponents of similar ability who can be edged out on the counter-attack in a close-knit game but when the Three Lions are allowed the ball by theoretically lesser teams, they never seem to quite know what to do with it – plenty of huff and puff without any real penetration.
And that concern is only amplified by the fact Tunisian football is at an all-time high right now. They enter the World Cup at 14th in the FIFA rankings, an unprecedented standing for the African nation, and in comparison to the muted confidence at best surrounding this England team, Tunisia enter the competition backed by real confidence. Forward Anice Badri has even predicted they’ll be one of the revelations of the tournament in Russia.
“I’m certain Tunisia can be one of the revelations of the tournament, and I’m not just saying that because it sounds nice.
“We’re 14th in the FIFA World Ranking right now, which shows how good we are, and we’re going to prove that on the pitch. We know how to manage games, play as a unit, make our skills count, keep possession, and make the difference in attack. Our opponents are going to suffer against us.”
And Badri should be one of the names Southgate bares in mind ahead of their Group Stage clash on June 18th, not least because – much like Tunisia – he’s something of an unknown quantity for the Three Lions. Born in Lyon, the 27-year-old got his first big chance at Lille, making 40 appearances for their reserves, but couldn’t force his way into the senior squad.
After a more productive spell with Royal Mouscron-Peruwelz, playing a key role in their promotion to the Belgian top flight, he moved to Tunisia where, as Badri explains, his club career has really kicked off.
“I had some good half-season spells in the Belgian league, but I felt that the time had come for me to change course and join Esperance, especially with the CAF Africa Cup of Nations and the FIFA World Cup coming up on the horizon.
“I’ve progressed on every level: mentally, tactically and physically. I manage matches better now and I’m doing the right things at the right time.”
That’s not to say he’s guaranteed a place in the starting XI or even the World Cup squad, with Nabil Maaloul’s 29-man cohort currently a preliminary one. He’ll have to fight Sunderland’s Wabhi Khazri for a spot out wide and he’s amongst the least experienced of Tunisia’s attacking options with just five caps to date. But Badri was given a chance to earn his place last night in a warm-up friendly against Portugal and grabbed it with both hands, scoring the goal to put his country back into the match after going 2-0 down.
It was an impressive strike too, one that suggests Tunisia could well spring a few surprises in Group G. As Tunisia careered down one wing, Badri cut inside from the other and when a loose tackle saw the ball fizz across the box, it was the Esperance star who tucked it away with a powerful, curling finish beyond Anthony Lopez. In a productive performance, he also created the most chances of any Tunisia player, while making two interceptions and completing 82% of his passes.
In terms of who that affects within the England team, the obvious candidates are the wing-backs in Southgate’s system, which will most likely be Tottenham duo Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose. Their ability to impact at both ends and provide width is vital to the England cause – it’s what makes the 3-5-2 and 3-4-3 setups function so well – but Badri’s influence represents a key danger that both wide defenders will need to navigate.
The five-cap forward has already shown the impact he can have against elite opposition in the form of the reigning European champions; leave him too much space by pushing up, and England’s World Cup hopes could quickly unravel in another underwhelming performance against a lesser team.