There were positives and negatives to take from England’s first warm-up friendly with Nigeria, a 2-1 win that eventually threw up as many questions as answers for Gareth Southgate as the Super Eagles managed to completely change the flow of the match during the second half.
But in many ways, that’s what World Cup warm-up friendlies are all about; learning what your team can do against certain opposition and perhaps most importantly, what it can’t. So, what exactly should Southgate have taken from Saturday’s Wembley clash heading into the tournament in Russia?
We look at three things…
For all the concerns over England’s lack of star quality there’s certainly a talented and varied strike-force at Southgate’s disposal and Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane are already showing real potential as a first-choice partnership with their respective styles complementing each other so well against Nigeria – even directly combining for the second goal after Gary Cahill’s opener.
Sterling’s speed and penetration continually created space for Kane to drift in, while the Tottenham man’s creative and passing quality allowed him to feed into Manchester City’s busy if inconsistent forward.
It wasn’t a perfect performance from the pair and they’ll need to work on their understanding of movement during the next few weeks. But plenty of their attacking moves were just one pass or one touch shy of ending with a goal, and that certainly bodes well for the tournament in Russia.
With three centre-halves on the pitch (including Eric Dier) and Kane up front, England have plenty of height to attack with at set pieces – the problem at Euro 2016 though was who to depend on for the delivery. That saw Roy Hodgson infamously turn to Kane but Tottenham team-mate Kieran Trippier was given dead ball duties on Saturday and showed what he can bring to this England side – assisting Cahill’s opening goal from an early corner.
Set pieces often decide games in knockout tournaments and particularly international ones, purely because teams have less time together to really drill their defensive duties on the training pitch, so Trippier – who Transfermarkt value at £18million – could end up playing a crucially important role for the Three Lions at the World Cup.
Veteran wide man Ashley Young’s free kick deliveries for Manchester United this season have been impressive too – that could be what eventually gets him the nod over Danny Rose at left wing-back.
England were as impressive in the first half as they were disappointing in the second, and that drastic shift in performance – typified by Alex Iwobi’s 47th-minute goal – owed completely to how Nigeria reorganised themselves during the interval, matching up with England’s 3-1-4-2 formation.
Southgate’s idiosyncratic setup certainly offers optimism through its ability to put every player in roles that suit their natural skills sets, but it’s limited effectiveness upon being matched up represents a worrying Achilles heel.
Belgium, Tunisia and Panama will no doubt have taken note of that and Southgate will need to discover something he couldn’t find on Saturday – a viable Plan B. That could be something as simple as pushing Dele Alli or Jesse Lingard forward to make a 3-4-3, or it could be something more drastic like moving Kyle Walker to right-back to complete a conventional four-man defence.
Either way though, Southgate and England appeared decisively short of alternatives after Nigeria worked 3-1-4-2 out.