England comfortably saw off a limited and aggressive Panama side with a convincing victory. Goals from Harry Kane, John Stones, and Jesse Lingard gave the score-line a deservedly comfortable look. England played much as they had in the first game: Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jesse Lingard pushed up and out into the half-spaces, looking to work off the superb Kieran Trippier or Jordan Henderson’s quarter-back passing; Harry Kane dropped off and Raheem Sterling was energetic in his pressing and stretching of a leggy Panama defence; and England once again seem to have rehearsed and innovated with set-pieces, to no little effect.
Two aspects of the game stood out: that use of set-pieces, and England’s game management and temperament in the face of considerable Panamanian provocation. The opening phases of the match saw robust play from Panama, bordering at times on the illegal and, before England had settled fully into the match, this did appear to phase them. In the first 15 or 20 minutes, Panama had several good counter-attacking opportunities as a result of England’s lack of control, with misplaced passes and heavy touches occurring in the build-up, especially on England’s left. Nonetheless, as England settled and grew into the match, these errors were largely eliminated. Crucially, too, England did not rise to Panama’s aggressive tactics. Ruben Loftus-Cheek was arguably unlucky to be booked and England seemed right to decide that the best response to Panama’s niggling was to control possession, make them chase the ball, and take their opportunities. For a young side, this is a testament to their maturity and their belief, as shown against Tunisia, that sticking to the game plan and not trying to force the game is the way to ensure a win.
England’s set-pieces were, at times, joyous. The corner that saw Stones’ goal had Raheem Sterling in an advanced position, marked by two Panama defenders, who presumably also had an eye on runners, with one spare ahead of him as well, and four England players man-marked around the penalty spot. Stones’ late run onto Trippier’s out-swinging corner was made possible by England’s movement in the box, which left him free to direct an excellent header into the bottom corner. For England’s fourth, they created the impression of a long, direct ball to the far post, as they had executed earlier in the game with Maguire heading over. Instead, however, Trippier played a short pass to Henderson running back, who change the angle of attack with a chip. Kane headed across to Sterling, who was only denied by a good save, and Stones mopped up to make it 4-0. A freeze-frame on the moment of Sterling’s header shows that each of the six England players in the box except Sterling has at least a metre of clear space around them, and Stones is totally unmarked. England’s movement and the surprise element of the switch pass left Panama totally flat-footed. This was a training ground move, worked on to create space for players, and it worked brilliantly. In a tight tournament of small margins, England look to have worked on an area that could give them an advantage in tight games, and it’s encouraging to see Southgate’s eye for detail. It should be noted, of course, that England gave up two opportunities from set-pieces in the latter stages of the game, one of which resulted in a goal, so there is room to improve there.
The last group stage game is against Belgium, and it will decide the order of the two team’s progression to the knock-out stages; this leaves Southgate with a few decisions to make. Considering changes makes some sense in the context of the tournament: Roberto Martinez has suggested he will, including resting Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, and there is surely some temptation for Southgate to do likewise, possibly protecting key players like Harry Kane. Nonetheless, in the condensed and pressured environment of tournament football, momentum counts for a lot, especially with a young, vibrant squad, and there is a strong argument for keeping things much as they are. While certain squad players may want to experience some football in a game that will only decide top spot in the group (and that is an odd ‘only’, too), Southgate should resist the temptation to make wholesale changes or, in fact, any. Asides from protecting a possible injury, a strong selection will maintain momentum, give England a chance of beating the first good team they will have faced, and do more good than harm. While England have played well so far, Tunisia and Panama are not great teams; Belgium are, and beating them will achieve more than changing up the team and giving a start to some of the other squad players.
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