England’s 2-1 win over Tunisia displayed plenty of promise and eventually, the mindset and the quality to overcome tricky circumstances with a stoppage time winner.
But it would be naive to think the Three Lions began the World Cup with a perfect performance; although some of the football going forward was amongst the best we’ve seen so far at Russia 2018, England will face much tougher opposition than Tunisia if they’re to progress to the latter stages of the tournament.
With a win over Panama being enough to see them through to the first knockout round, we look at three things Gareth Southgate’s side must improve upon before they face the Central American nation on Sunday….
Perhaps it’s an inevitable consequence of how young and inexperienced this squad is, especially when coupled with the weight of historic World Cup disappointment that unfortunately accompanies every England side.
But the plethora of chances created early on couldn’t be converted due to nervy finishing, and the momentum England built quickly evaporated after Tunisia equalised from the penalty spot – it suddenly became incredibly chaotic and disorganised as confidence seemed to drain out of Southgate’s side.
There were sloppy passes from Harry Maguire too, while Manchester United’s Ashley Young seemed almost too aggressive in some of his challenges down the left flank. Eventually England held their nerve to find a late winner, but the latter portion of the first half and much of the second was far more tense than it needed to be considering how dominant England were. Hopefully a few more World Cup outings will bring some calmness to this young team, but Southgate needs to ensure the players keep their heads during those delicate moments.
England never seem to get the rub of the green with decisions at the World Cup – from Diego Maradona’s Hand of God to Frank Lampard’s goal that never was and Wayne Rooney and David Beckham’s questionable sending offs in between, it’s been a recurring theme throughout Three Lions history.
There were even more examples of that on Monday night; the incredibly soft penalty awarded against Kyle Walker contrasted so incredibly with Harry Kane being dragged down in the box twice only for referee Wilmar Roldan to completely ignore the Tottenham striker.
It may sound cynical and entirely against the spirit of the game, especially the English game, but it comes down to being savvy and cute during those instances. Tunisia got plenty of luck tumbling to the turf at every opportunity – it’s precisely what won them the penalty – and surrounding the referee to protest every decision.
England need to take a leaf out of their book and at the very least give the referee more to think about with impassioned and dramatic responses to tackles and challenges, especially in the era of VAR.
England’s 3-1-4-2 system certainly seems to get everybody in their best roles in an offensive sense, but there were more than a couple of hairy moments at the back – including the penalty Walker gave away.
The Manchester City defender’s body position was completely wrong and although it was an extremely harsh decision from the referee, in some senses he brought it on himself. But that’s to be expected considering Walker’s a right-back by trade, so Southgate really needs to spend the time they have on the training pitch making sure the 28-year-old is getting the basics right at the heart of defence.
Likewise, there were instances on both flanks when the players didn’t seem quite sure who should be closing down, who should be covering and who should be holding shape. Those few seconds of confusion really need to be ironed out because against one of the World Cup’s top quality teams, they could prove to be the unfortunate difference for England. Overall, England looked effective when they were on the front foot, but looked nervous and uncertain when they weren’t.