England secured a 2-1 win over Tunisia in their first match of this World Cup and, while the score-line accurately reflects a game of no little tension, England can be well satisfied with their night’s work. Harry Kane’s late headed goal was the product of sustained pressure and no less than the captain and his side deserved; indeed, he should have had at least two penalties for clear infringements at corners, and England would not have been flattered by a more convincing score-line.
Gareth Southgate’s 3-5-2, which lined up as more of a 3-1-4-2, achieved much of what the manager must have had in mind when he switched to the formation. Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker were both able to find space into which they could carry the ball, with Maguire especially making inroads on the Tunisian right-hand side during the second half. As both wide centre-backs were able to move up, this meant Tunisia either had to push to close down the player and the passing options, leaving players and space unmarked, or stay with their pre-assigned men, giving more room in to which to carry the ball. In the second half of the second half, as England looked to push Tunisia further and further back towards their own goal, this was a very effective ploy and bodes well for England’s overall ability to control the space of the pitch.
The link man, Jordan Henderson, also had a very good game. He was constantly able to drop into the space between the opposition forward and midfield lines and, while he was not always used as a passing option, especially given the industry and excellence of Kieran Trippier and, to a lesser extent, Ashley Young in the wing-back positions, Henderson was always there. A few of his longer passes also found England’s magic square of Kane, Sterling, Dele, and Lingard hurtling into space; this longer, more direct option will be extremely useful against sides like Belgium who push up their own wing-backs high. As the game moved on and England pressed higher, Henderson brought this creativity increasingly to the edge of the Tunisian box, and his positioning and passing was a genuinely bright light for England throughout the game.
Also positive was England’s press. Unlike most of the big sides seen so far in the tournament, England pressed heavily and with coherence, most noticeably from the outset of the game until the mugginess and England’s own dominance of the ball meant this was less welcome and less needed. Sterling and Kane worked hard to press the centre-backs, while Dele and Lingard pressed across into the wide spaces, assisted by the wing-backs, to ensure that Tunisia did not have any easy out balls. When Tunisia went long, they invariably found Walker stepping up into the midfield area, or Henderson, who were able to mop up and recycle possession to mount another England attack. The pressing was concerted and effective, a testament both to the players’ willingness to work hard in taxing conditions and the prevalence of this sort of press in the English domestic game: the players will have found it quite natural to employ a similar style in the red of England to the blue of Manchester City or the white of Spurs.
In attack, England were adventurous and it is probably fair to say that the first ten minutes of the match were as coherent and dynamic an attacking performance as we have seen from any side at the tournament, albeit for a short period. Kane and Sterling found space while Dele and Lingard pushed up and out, or up and in, their later runs causing a physical but cumbersome Tunisian defence a lot of problems. Having said that, as Tunisia sat off increasingly in the second half, allowing England to dominate territory and possession, it was harder to break them down. England looked boosted by Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s introduction, though that was probably as much down to Dele clearly not being fully fit by that point as it was Loftus-Cheek’s own attributes; none the less, he brought some deft touches and an ability to hold the ball in midfield under pressure to the game. A player of his size and skill level does not need to carry the ball from trouble immediately, as he is able to hold off players and find his pass, and this allowed England that extra bit of time to move and find space, which could be helpful against a side who presses more.
All in all, though, England can take heart from a tactically solid performance and several players, Trippier, Maguire, and Henderson especially, looking extremely comfortable in the system and with Southgate’s clear tactical plan. Sterner tests await, but for now, it is looking positive.
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