England’s dramatic 2-1 victory over Tunisia in the opening game of their World Cup campaign has sent the nation into a frenzy, with familiar optimism over the Three Lions’ chances of winning the tournament beginning to rise. Although it’s important (and probably healthy) not to get carried away, England’s performance definitely gave fans enough reason to hope for more memorable moments this summer from the national team.
Gareth Southgate set up his side in an unorthodox 3-5-2 formation, designed to get attacking midfielders Delle Alli and Jesse Lingard to make forward runs supporting a strike-force of Raheem Sterling and captain Harry Kane. Everton’s Jordan Pickford earned his first start in goal in an international tournament, behind a back 3 featuring Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire. Keiran Trippier and Ashley Young were the wing backs, whilst Jordan Henderson was tasked with protecting the back 3 as a holding midfielder.
What England lack in ball-playing midfielders, they make up for in great forward movement and direct attacking play, not dissimilar to Liverpool in their run to the Champions League final last season. England played some thrilling football in the first half hour, and only had themselves to blame for only being one goal up after Harry Kane scored a rebound from a saved John Stones header. Raheem Sterling was not at his best, missing a clear chance six yards from goal, whilst Jesse Lingard was slightly unlucky to hit the post after a clipped finish over Tunisian goalkeeper Mouez Hassen.
Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, things almost went wrong for England. Kyle Walker, playing slightly out of position as a right centre back rather than his favoured right back role, inexplicably caught Fakhreddine Ben Youssef with a stray elbow, conceding a penalty that allowed Tunisia to equalise. England should have had a penalty of their own after Harry Kane was wrestled to the ground during a corner, but both the referee and video assistant referee (VAR) decided not to award one. To Tunisia’s credit, they defended much better in the second half, sitting deep to try and negate England’s dangerous runs in behind their defence.
England brought on Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to make the breakthrough, and both made positive contributions, combining with the dangerous Trippier to overload the left side of Tunisia’s defence. Trippier created six goal-scoring opportunities, more than any other player in the tournament so far. England’s captain and perhaps only truly world-class player Harry Kane again popped up in the penalty box at the right time to direct a header into the bottom left hand corner of the goal after Harry Maguire headed on from Trippier’s corner. The goal was Kane’s 15th in 25 England caps – Gary Lineker is the last player to score more in his first 25 games with 20.
England’s character, playing philosophy and strength in depth were all tested, and it has to be said that England answered every question asked of them. In tournament football, results are paramount but it was refreshing for the supporting public to see an England team want to win with style, and playing without the fear of previous generations. They will have to break down another defensive side in Panama on Sunday, probably without Dele Alli who may miss the match with a thigh strain. Gareth Southgate may replace both him and Raheem Sterling with Loftus-Cheek and Rashford, who looked sharper during their cameos on Monday. A heavyweight clash with Belgium awaits next Thursday.
England can expect to qualify from their group after having collected 3 points against Tunisia, and looked better in doing so than other tournament favourites such as Brazil, Argentina, and world champions Germany, who lost their opening game to Mexico. That said, there is always room for improvement, with the World Cup sure to throw obstacles in their way. But if they can replicate the qualities displayed in their opening game, there is every chance they can end 52 years of hurt and win football’s biggest prize.