It’s hard to think of a country that fits the profile of side England usually come unstuck against at international tournaments better than Tunisia. They’re hardworking, well-organised and little-known but perhaps most worryingly of all, Tunisian football is riding the crest of wave right now – they enter this summer’s World Cup in Russia accompanied by their highest ever FIFA ranking of 14th place, which is also the highest of any African nation.
Flashbacks of the USA, Algeria and even Euro 2016 opponents Iceland inevitably come to mind, and the banana-skin potential is only amplified by the fact England face Tunisia in their first World Cup game. Victory makes the remaining Group G games a whole lot easier; the fear of defeat though, really puts the pressure on to come away from Monday night’s 7pm clash with the right result.
Fortunately though, Football FanCast are here to help. Our World Cup cheat sheet gives Gareth Southgate a brief glimpse of everything he needs to know before next week’s game to ensure the Three Lions start the World Cup on the strongest footing possible.
The current tenure represents Nabil Maaloul’s fifth involvement with the Tunisian national team, having previously served as assistant twice, winning the African Cup of Nations in 2004 under Badou Ezzakiand overseen their involvement at the Olympics during the same year. He’s only the second Tunisian manager to qualify for a World Cup, so the current spell is going particularly well.
Whereas Tunisia have often found success previously in ensuring they’re a tight-knit, cohesive unit, Maaloul’s adapted that approach to allowing some more freedom in attack, leading to involvement in this summer’s tournament and some impressive warm-up performances to boot.
Tunisia finished top of CAF Group A without losing a single game and conceding just four goals, although their qualification group was amongst the least challenging with DR Congo providing the only truly significant competition. Regardless though, Tunisia are very much a different animal now; the post-qualification phase has seen Maaloul lift the quality and depth of his squad by recruiting European-born and based players – most notably Saif-Eddine Khaoui, Ellyes Skhiri, Yohan Benalouane of Leicester City and goalkeeper Mouez Hassen.
Some feared how that would affect the balance of a team that relied so much on togetherness, but recent results suggest it has only enhanced the Tunisia squad and made them a more fearsome proposition. The consequence though, is that much of this squad is inexperienced at international level – only seven players have more than 30 caps, whereas 11 have ten or less.
Incredibly well, once again highlighting how those European-based players have quickly improved the quality of the side. Tunisia came from two goals down to draw with Portugal in their first warm-up friendly, the wide-men showing real verve in attack and efficiency in front of goal, followed by the same scoreline against Turkey in their second and although they lost their third 1-0 to Spain in front of a home crowd, it was another decent performance that suggests they can at the very least look competitive against countries with real history and pedigree.
“Tunisia without Msakni? It’s as if Argentina was playing without Messi.”
Maaloul’s ill-fated remark before his most important player Youssef Msakni – a No.10 who boasts 82 goals and 63 assists in 144 appearances for Al Duhail – suffered a World Cup-ending injury only further emphasises how important Tunisia’s ability to play as a cohesive team will be in Russia. But Maaloul does have one key solution in the form of a player just returning from injury – Sunderland-owned Wahbi Khazri.
He will have faced some of the players in this England team before and brings real pace and flair to the Tunisia attack. He’s also the current squad’s top scorer and will likely line up at centre-forward in Russia, the same role he enjoyed at Rennes last season. This England team certainly isn’t slow in defence, but Khazri has enough pace to make the likes of Kyle Walker and John Stones nervous.
Khazri remains the standout name, at least from an England perspective, but there’s a few other gems in this Tunisia team too. Skhiri has just come to the end of a strong season with Montpellier, helping them to a top-half finish in Ligue 1, and will be key to protecting the defence from midfield despite only having five caps to date.
Anice Badri, aged 27, is another player who has attempted to fill Msakni’s void of creativity and showed how important he can be for this side during the warm-ups, scoring against both Portugal and Turkey. 22-year-old Dylan Bronn, meanwhile, plies his trade in the Belgian top flight – so Premier League scouts are bound to take notice if he performs well at the World
4-2-3-1 is the preferred approach, likely because it guarantees Tunisia a good balance. It ensures there’s creativity behind the centre-forward, something now more important than ever in Msakni’s absence, but also two holding midfielders in front of the backline – including the aforementioned Skhiri.
The three attacking midfielders showed some rotation against Portugal and that will likely be a key ploy in the England game too, which will give the wing-backs – most likely Tottenham pair Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier – plenty to think about.
Maaloul has made this Tunisia team far more expansive than in recent years and although they’re still largely a counter-attacking side that relies on speed on the break, they are a lot more comfortable on the ball and will hold onto possession if England give them the chance to play. In the second half against Portugal, they actually had 52% possession and although they could only convert that into two efforts at goal, it proved there’s more than one dimension to this Tunisia team.
Should Khazri start up front England can feel pretty confident of dominating Tunisia from long balls in the air. In fact, just one player in their World Cup squad measures in at over 6 foot 2, towering centre-half Hamdi Nagguez, so the potential is certainly there for Harry Kane and company to make a nuisance of themselves at set pieces.
The other key weakness is that Tunisia’s increased expansiveness has left them a little exposed at the back. The fact Benalouane’s become their new defensive leader pretty much says it all and a lack of pace is a real problem across the defence.
England should have the natural requisites to take advantage of that through the likes of Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli, and it’s also worth noting that Tunisia’s resolve against Spain finally broke when the former world champions switched to three at the back – which looks set to be Southgate’s system at the World Cup.
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