England pipped Tunisia at the post in their World Cup opener in Volgograd, eking out a 2-1 win for their first World Cup win since 2010.
The Three Lions fully deserved that win, but a moment of madness from Kyle Walker had seen an opening day win put in jeopardy. Belgium’s 3-0 win over Panama earlier in the evening had seen Gareth Southgate’s men desperate to close the gap to their group rivals in order to avoid an unfavourable draw in the Round of 16.
Southgate’s challenge was multi-fold: avoid a slip up against Tunisia in the opener and avoid the fates of other ‘fancied’ teams, aka Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Spain. For an hour, it seemed like the England of old had resurfaced. But then, this England team is defined by its captain. And the captain stepped up.
Harry Kane’s elevation to the top post wasn’t a surprise. The fact that the Tottenham Hotspur striker was given the armband wasn’t too much of a call, as much as it was a low-risk decision.
Ask fans and players to name a better English player at this point in time, and they will fail. Kane had become the first man since Gary Lineker to score 30 goals in a league season for Tottenham and his record over three seasons proves that this is no flash-in-the-pan.
His reactions, his goal-poaching abilities have always been questioned in August but are always vindicated by May. Consider the statement a bit of a stretch, but he very well may be the only world-class player in this English line-up. If the head coach wanted to create a team in the image of his captain, it was the right choice.
As for the support cast, the only questions came over who would line-up at left wing-back, with some preferring Danny Rose’s pace to Ashley Young’s one-dimensional industry. Southgate, despite a policy which seems to heavily favour youth, backed Young to fill the role, a decision which in hindsight, seems like the right one, considering Rose’s game-time over the season.
Too often have England teams picked on experience rather than merit, and that has seen them play a teeth-gnashing brand of football, rather than the one on display in the first half hour.
Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling, England’s three most potent attackers over the course of a season, joined Kane in the starting line-up and the impact was instant.
Lingard could and should have had a third-minute opener but when the breakthrough came, it went to the team in the ascendancy. Such is the demand of Kane, that four major tournament games without a win, and he was slated in the press as much as the rest of the team were, in the aftermath of the loss against Iceland at the Euros.
As John Stones’ header was superbly clawed away by the Tunisian keeper, Kane reacted the quickest, ending that ‘drought’ and putting England safely on their way to an easy victory.
The chances were coming thick and fast, and no one created more on the night than Kieran Trippier. The Tottenham man had a chance to step into Walker’s role, with the latter employed as a third centre-back, and he gleefully took the chance.
Trippier is indeed the embodiment of the Southgate era, an indication that club form does matter over the mere name of the club and that there are chances to be seized, and lost.
But England were still being England. ‘Shoot-foot-itis’ is never far away, and there were early signs of panic in defence, playing a progressive system. There were a few loose give-aways, as you could expect from a 11 playing for the first time.
Walker’s decision to hold the Tunisian attacker for an over-hit cross was bizarre; it was a reckless move and even if the penalty was soft, it was never going to be reversed. Tunisia drew level, and the questions surrounding major tournament pedigree surfaced again.
Referee Wilmar Roldan however will have questions asked of his officiating as Kane was grabbed and wrestled with in the box. The VAR system works but the uniform application still merits discussion.
Several of the Lions went into shell mode after Tunisia’s goal; some were plain wasteful, none more so than Sterling. Pep Guardiola has infused a cutting edge into Sterling’s game, yet here he was floundering about the final third, running into brick walls and down blind alleys.
England created chances by the boat-loads but were guilty of over-playing the ball in the final third, as John Stones missed with a simple kick. It was left to the introduction of Ruben Loftus-Cheek to freshen up the ideas, and so it proved.
As it seemed that England would start with a draw, the two Harrys, Maguire and Kane, combined to get the three points. Maguire bossed his marker from Trippier’s corner and the header fell to Kane, who made no mistake, slotting it in.
Southgate will be livid at his men for their fragile mentality and their wastefulness, but he’ll be glad to see out a game which they simply had to win. He may make further tweaks against Panama, as he strives to shore up the attack.
Kane’s goal was the difference between negativity and hope, and the finishes were certainly Lineker-esque. Indeed, Kane became the first man to net a brace for England at World Cups since the Match of the Day presenter achieved that feat in 1990.
The mood back in the England camp will be one of cautious optimism, a prayer that the low hype attached to the team this time around can see them make quiet progress till they face the might of Belgium in the last group game. Till then, expect them to avoid scrutiny if they grind out a similar or a better result against Panama.