Starry-eyed supporters may already be looking at how England could easily hop, skip and jump their away along the branches of this side of the World Cup’s knockout tree to the tournament’s final, such is the modest quality of the potential opposition along the way.
But before the Three Lions can truly get to that point, they have to overcome one of the toughest sides in this part of the draw – 2014 World Cup quarter-finalists Colombia.
Combining speed and flair in attack with real physicality and ruggedness in defence, the Colombians are your typical South American side. So, in which parts of the pitch will that contrast in philosophies most stand out, and who is the likeliest to reap the rewards from it? Here’s where Colombia vs England will be lost and won…
Only England have scored more goals than Colombia at set pieces so far in the tournament, three compared to four, and it will be a core focus for both sides heading into Tuesday’s game.
Yerry Mina and John Stones represent the most consistent targets at two goals apiece, but it’s England who offer the biggest aerial threat with the Manchester City ace backed by Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson and a real predator in Harry Kane – who scored twice through a rebound and a knockdown against Tunisia.
Colombia just don’t have the same amount of height running through the team, although there is a very good reason Mina’s proved so difficult to stop in the air, the Barcelona defender measuring in at a whopping 6 foot 5. England and Colombia have both conceded just once from set pieces at the World Cup, and they’ll be working hard in training this week to keep it that way.
A factor that boils down to the contrasting objectives of the respective formations. The revival of three-man defences has been a direct reaction to the vast popularity of 4-2-3-1, the extra centre-half providing more than enough cover for a single centre-forward while pushing the full-backs into more offensive positions, so in in theory England should have the tactical upper hand.
But whenever two systems vary so greatly, it becomes a question of which team can better impose their formation on the other. England’s wing-backs will naturally find space, which could prove to be a crucial advantage considering how key Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young have been to the Three Lions’ successes at this tournament, providing creativity from out wide.
But as a consequence, Colombia will have opportunity to pass around the Three Lions in central areas, particularly through their attacking midfield duo of Juan Quintero and James Rodriguez.
That will provide England’s formation the biggest test it has faced so far at this World Cup; with Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard always looking to break forward from the midfield to join the attack, it remains to be seen if the back three and Jordan Henderson can cope with that level of quality – striker Radamel Falcao included – when Colombia are on the ball.
If the Liverpool captain can’t hold them off on his own, Alli and Lingard will end up being pinned back, too far away from goal to cause any significant damage.
If there’s one key battle that could decide this match, it’s surely Kane against Davinson Sanchez. Powerful and quick, Kane won’t get past the Colombian easily, but there’s another reason this one-on-one could prove surprisingly difficult for arguably the best striker in the world right now.
Whereas most defenders at this tournament won’t have any real experience playing against Kane, Sanchez has trained with him practically every day for the last year.
That familiarity is a massive advantage for Colombia, although Kane remains one of the sharpest strikers out there when it comes to sniffing out scoring opportunities. And if anything, focusing on Kane too much could prove incredibly detrimental for his Tottenham accomplice; for this England side, the Spurs star is at his most functional when dropping back to create space for Alli, Lingard andRaheem Sterling to burst into.
If Sanchez sticks with the World Cup’s top goalscorer, he’ll inadvertently let others drift into the space he’s left behind.
Already sent off once at this World Cup, Carlos Sanchez can be an accident waiting to happen when he’s having a bad day. The experienced playbreaker is tough and physical, but that often manifests into wild challenges in dangerous areas, and England should really look to exploit that if they can get Lingard and Alli running at speed in central areas – which has been a key characteristic of Southgate’s 3-1-4-2 setup so far at this World Cup.
Sanchez won’t hesitate to bring players down, especially if they’re honing in on him, and an early booking will give England a key advantage in midfield. Even if that doesn’t materialise, England should be getting plenty of free kicks off the 32-year-old – referee Mark Geiger has awarded the fourth-most fouls per game of any official at the World Cup so far.
Should the Three Lions manage that, their aforementioned threat at set pieces quickly comes into play.