England snatch victory in opening group game.
There was a familiar feeling in the warm Russian air for most of Monday night as England looked to be stumbling and labouring towards a 1-1 draw with Tunisia in Volgograd.
Cue Captain Kane on 91 minutes with an opportune header and huge relief for England as three points were secured to keep up the pace with Belgium in Group G.
Southgate’s men started well and could have been two up before Harry Kane’s 11th minute tap in. Oddly their early confidence evaporated after their goal and Tunisia got back in the game following Sassi’s 35th minute penalty.
England lacked urgency and decisiveness in the second half as Tunisia adopted some of the darker arts to so nearly grind out a point.
Tonight though was all about the win, nothing more. Nobody will care much about the performance in a few days time, but it was a close thing as England won just their 2nd World Cup match since 2006.
Hard work of it
The first twenty minutes were excellent as Southgate’s side took the game to North Africans. Sterling and Lingard were lively and the movement of England’s attacks unsettled the Tunisian defensive lines.
Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling game close as England moved the ball with confidence and purpose. Ashley Young was excellent in the first half as he made himself a constant option down the left flank as England looked to stretch their opponents.
Concentration and complacency became an issue as the first half wore on. Harry Maguire switched off and got lucky, but when Kyle Walker’s careless arm caught Ben Youssef in the face Wilmar Roldan pointed to the spot for Tunisia to equalize. From then on it, it was a challenge as the heat drained England’s players and they struggled for pace and sharpness in the second half.
Tunisia employed the dark arts a fair few times and looked to have successfully frustrated their opponents until the 91st minute. Harry Kane did what all great strikers do, he nipped into the right place, anticipating a flick on, before coolly nodding past the ‘keeper to rescue England’s three points.
No performance is without areas for improvement, but this was one that was really lacking. Worryingly for Southgate his team’s tempo dropped off dramatically as the night wore on.
There is a valid argument to suggest the heat in Volgograd or the disruption caused by wily opponents stopped any flow to proceedings. Whatever excuses are made, England were poor. They moved the ball far too slowly to cause Tunisia any grief and their decision making looked disjointed. Flicks or dummies would be attempted by one player only the for the man running in behind to look slightly startled and snatch at the loose ball.
Southgate perhaps showed his lack of experience too as he delayed in taking off Delle Ali who was visibly struggling and became a passenger in the side as the night wore on. When he did make the call, his subs improved the side as Rashford and Loftus-Cheek added some much needed tempo to the performance. Against better teams though, England may not be afforded the luxury of over an hour with effectively ten men on the pitch. They will also need to pass the ball with more purpose and threat as they were far too easy to nullify against a vastly inferior side.
For now though, the England manager can reflect on a decent result which should give his young side plenty of confidence. He will likely want more from some of his players and the Sterling conundrum remains. No manager seems quite brave enough to unleash him and allow him to use his devastating pace and quick feet, perhaps it will be Panama to suffer this fate.