England’s World Cup campaign begins at the Volgograd Arena on Monday night, when they take on Group G opponents Tunisia, and there’s a real sense of positivity around Gareth Southgate’s young and promising team. Even if they can’t quite make it to the latter stages of the competition, they at least look capable of playing some exciting football – a marked seachange from the last few years.
But will this prove to be yet another false dawn for a country that hasn’t won a major international honour in over half a century, or a genuinely new one for the promising young Lions? Football FanCast’s editor-in-chief James Jones and Sam Preston share their thoughts and predictions ahead of the 7pm kickoff…
Perhaps it’s just the blind optimism that has accompanied England before every World Cup, but it does genuinely feel as if the Three Lions have turned a corner under Southgate. He’s created a unique 3-1-4-2 system rather than simply trying to get as many big names onto the pitch as possible, and within that framework is an abundance of pace and flair.
How far can England go at this tournament?
JJ: “There definitely seems to be a good feeling about the squad at the moment and that works in our favour somewhat. The lack of pressure from the nation and the press at this point allows the team to go into the tournament playing with freedom. With that in mind, I can see us getting to the quarter-finals. Perhaps we can go even further, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
SP: “Quarter finals looks very reasonable, but given that we’ve seen nearly all the pre-tournament favourites and none of them have set the world alight, there is no reason why England can’t set their sights further than that. Mexico, Switzerland and Iceland among others have shown that the ‘big boys’ can be stunned and England should fancy themselves to do that, should the opportunity arise.”
While this England squad may lack truly stellar names, perhaps with the exception of Harry Kane, there is one significant positive to that in the variety and depth of options at Southgate’s disposal. There’s plenty of versatility within the squad as well, through players like Ashley Young, Eric Dier and Marcus Rashford, so although Southgate seems pretty set on his 3-1-4-2 setup and the players involved, there’s certainly scope to change up for specific opposition like Tunisia.
Are there any players you’d like to see come into the side for this game?
SP: “I’d choose Danny Rose over Ashley Young, because he’s a more natural left wing-back, who offers a greater threat in open play and his performance against Costa Rica showed he is back to his best. I have no qualms about the rest of the team but on the back of their friendly showings, I’m excited to see the energy that Fabian Delph, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Rashford could offer from the bench.”
JJ: “At this stage I’d be happy with any side Southgate picks but I’m interested to see how Trent Alexandar-Arnold handles himself at this level. He was brilliant for Liverpool last season and has the potential to be one of the best in the world in his position. Playing at a World Cup, and playing well, will play a huge role in his development.”
Tunisia may not exactly be a classic World Cup side, this being only their fourth tournament, but the North African nation shouldn’t be underestimated. They reached their highest ever FIFA ranking of 14th back in April and showed some quality in the warmup friendlies, drawing with both Portugal and Turkey – neither of whom are easy opposition.
Which Tunisia players could cause England the biggest problems?
JJ: “Whabi Khazri is a player who promised so much when he arrived in England but ultimately got caught up in the mess at Sunderland. He poses a real threat, as do Anice Badri and Ellyes Skhiri, who are arguably Tunisia’s two key players at this tournament.”
SP: “I won’t pretend to be an expert on Tunisia but from what I’ve read in a week where I’ve convinced myself that they must be better than we all expect, Saif-Eddine Khaoui appears to be the main creator because Youssef Msakni is injured. But, cliche as it sounds, Tunisia are a well-drilled side who would be happy with 0-0 and know how best to set up to frustrate England.”
What key factor does an England victory rest on?
SP: Yet another cliche here, but an early goal. Tunisia will set up deep and let England have the ball so the longer the game wears on without us scoring or creating many clear chances, the nervier the game may become. An early strike would settle the nerves, forcing Tunisia to come out at some stage and offering England much more space in behind for their lively attackers to exploit.
JJ:“I think a positive England result will come down to whether they play with the confidence and intensity we know they can when they’re at their best. With less pressure on them than other tournaments, this is the perfect opportunity for them to go out there and really show us what they can do.”
And finally lads, let’s hear your score predictions…
JJ:“It won’t be comfortable but it’ll be 2-0 England. Three points on the board and one step closer to bringing football home.”
SP:“As much as a crushing victory – coupled with the struggles of the favourites – would get the country rocking, I’d definitely take a 1-0 here. Russia aside, nobody has started off this World Cup in sparkling style and much of that is down to how much time the ‘underdogs’ have had to prepare their defensive gameplans. Tunisia will be no different but I still think England will edge it 1-0.”
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