Ken Early: England's warm-up is over, the World Cup starts now
Panama were so awful it was hard to believe this was taking place at the World Cup finals
England’s John Stones scoring their first goal against Panama in Nizhny Novgorod Stadium. Photograph: Reuters/Ivan Alvarado
The build-up to England’s showdown with Panama in Nizhny Novgorod had been dominated by a row over the publication of a long-lens photo of England’s assistant manager Steve Holland holding a piece of paper which appeared to list Gareth Southgate’s planned team selection.
The question of why so many people thought it controversial that newspapers would publish information captured by accredited photographers at an event to which the press had been officially invited can be dealt with some other time.
But after watching England demolish Panama by six goals to one you can begin to understand why Southgate’s coaching team might guard their secrets more jealously than most.
England destroyed Panama so thoroughly at set-plays that they barely had to create anything from open play, though you got the impression they could have if they had needed to.
John Stones scored the first goal from a corner and the fourth from an elaborate set-piece routine that involved three clever passes to create the initial opening for Raheem Sterling. One of Harry Kane’s two penalties came from Panama’s blundering attempts to defend another Kieran Trippier corner.
England have been lethal from corners at this World Cup, with four of the 11 they have taken so far in the tournament leading to goals – an impressive return given that normally you could expect to score from roughly one in every 50 corners.
“We’ve identified [set-pieces] as a key area in tournaments,” Southgate said. “It was a key area we can improve upon. You need outstanding delivery and people who want to go and head the thing. At the moment we’ve got that, and we’re giving it the right sort of attention during training. No matter how much you control the game and how much you control possession, set-plays at both ends of the field are crucial.”
The English reaction to a match that saw England smash the record for their biggest ever win at the World Cup finals will surely be dominated by congratulations for the players who delivered so many goals and excitement about what might be achieved.
Yet it’s too early to say that we’re seeing the emergence of an uninhibited, superbly coached England team that has sloughed off 52 years of hurt like an old dead skin, and that the three lions are ready to roar all the way to Moscow, as their fans sang throughout the game.
Panama were so awful it was hard to believe all this was taking place at the World Cup. It felt more like watching one of those sunny pre-season friendlies where FC Bayern win 16-0 against a village team from the Alps.
The gulf in quality might also have been a little worrying for Fifa
There are still some pundits who question why most top coaches these days prefer zonal defending at set-pieces. They should be made to watch Panama here for an astonishing demonstration of what can happen when man-marking goes horribly wrong.
From the very beginning the Panamanian defenders’ focus was on the man rather than the ball. The opening goal came when simple decoy runs by England players successfully pulled all the Panamanian man-markers out of the goal area, allowing Stones to sail in glorious isolation through the centre of the box and score with a simple header. Of the five England goals that followed, Jesse Lingard’s was classy and Harry Kane’s third was lucky: the rest were assisted by awful Panamanian defending.
You were left to wonder how a team as bad as Panama could have made it to the World Cup finals, and it was football that must have had a deeply depressing effect on those Americans who had got up early to tune in. The USA had somehow managed to finish two places behind Panama in the last round of Concacaf qualifying.
The gulf in quality might also have been a little worrying for Fifa. By 2026, the World Cup will have trebled in size over a period of 44 years. In theory this expansion of the competition was meant to develop the game around the world and encourage a levelling-out of competitiveness.
Instead the opposite seems to be happening. This was the most startling demonstration of a theme that has been emerging at this tournament: the increasing inability of teams from the rest of the world to compete with European sides. You don’t hear people argue “there are no easy games in international football” any more.
There have been 22 matches at the World Cup so far that have pitted a European side against a non-European one. The score is 15 wins for Europe, three draws (Iceland 1-1 Argentina, Switzerland 1-1 Brazil, and Denmark 1-1 Australia), and four wins for the rest of the world (Mexico 1-0 Germany, Poland 1-2 Senegal, Nigeria 2-0 Iceland and Colombia 3-0 Poland).
Panama’s coach Hernan Gomez said afterwards that he had congratulated Southgate on his “totally spectacular and beautiful team”. Asked to say which of Belgium or England he preferred, he delivered instead an extended rumination on the quality of the World Cup in general. All the teams he thought to praise came from the same part of the world.
“England and Belgium can both make you very fearful when their players have the ball at their feet. But there is also Germany yesterday, you know, as Napoleon said: ‘dress me slowly because I am in a hurry’. Spain as well, a huge opponent, a great opponent. Was it Switzerland who beat Serbia? That was an incredible match, a classical match. Then look at Croatia, with Rakitic and Modric.
“I like so many things about the World Cup. There are really brilliant teams here, with tremendous physical fitness, great technique, lots of pressure, speed, triangulations. I am really happy to be here. It’s such a shame that we’ve been knocked out.”
As for England, the fixture list has allowed them to cruise into the knockout stages. On Thursday they play what amounts to a prestige exhibition game against Belgium to determine who tops the group – a prize whose worth will be better known once the second round fixtures have taken shape over the next few days. Roberto Martinez’ side will provide the first significant test of England’s quality. The warm-ups are over; the real World Cup starts here.