Ken Early: England show old habits die hard under pressure
Harry Kane’s late goal brings relief after an old school tournament performance
England captain Harry Kane heads home his his second goal in the World Cup Group G game against Tunisia at the Volgograd Arena. Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Nothing banishes doubts like the exhilaration of an injury-time winner, but of all the teams to win matches late in this World Cup, England’s relief must have had the queasiest tinge.
At the Volgograd Arena in the immediate aftermath of the game, journalists were astonished to hear that Gary Lineker had described England’s performance as “exceptional”. Did he mean exceptional in the way a two-headed cow is exceptional?
It had certainly been astonishing. It was astonishing that England could have missed so many easy chances; it was astonishing that they could have been so manifestly superior to their opponents, yet ended up squeaking past them so narrowly; it was astonishing that this England team, full of what according to Gareth Southgate is a new kind of English footballer, could channel so convincingly the spirit of so many England tournament failures of the past.
“It’s always in the back of your mind that it’s gonna be one of them days,” said Harry Kane, and you wondered how England could have been prey to those familiar fears against an opponent that they so thoroughly outclassed.
The new-look system England are using at this World Cup essentially breaks down into a six-man defence and a four-man attack. The five defenders and Jordan Henderson pass it among themselves and try to tempt opponents into the press before releasing it to attackers in behind. That four-man attack has a good balance in theory – Kane the finisher, Dele Alli the creator, Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard bringing the speed and penetration.
And for the first half an hour it worked brilliantly in practice, aided it must be said by the sloppiness of palpably nervous opponents. Tunisia’s goalkeeper Mouez Hassen set the tone inside a minute by passing the ball out for an England throw, and within five minutes Lingard and Sterling had missed simple chances, both created by incisive play from Alli.
On nine minutes John Stones headed towards goal from a corner and although Hassen made a good save, the rebound fell to Kane at the far post. At this point England looked likely to score four or five, once they figured out how to stop missing all their chances.
Henderson was looking like Jari Litmanen, spearing passes through the gaps between frozen defenders. They were opening up Tunisia at will. Fifa’s VIP list revealed that the most high-profile Englishmen listed were Sol Campbell and David Gill. That empty bandwagon will be filling up fast, you thought, if England keep playing like this.
Then, in an instant everything changed.
Kyle Walker had been having a good game at the back, getting on the ball more than anyone else on the field. When the ball came in from the Tunisia right it seemed another routine situation for him to deal with. Walker turned and made as though to usher Tunisia’s centre forward Ferjani Sassi away from the ball – only to casually raise an arm into his face.
It was an obvious foul, and the complaints of English pundits that it was a harsh award may have owed more to their inability to accept that Walker could have done something so careless on such a stage rather than any objective analysis of what had actually taken place. Sassi swept the penalty into Jordan Pickford’s right corner and all England’s good work had gone to waste.
This was now a fascinating test of England’s mentality. How would they respond to such a confounding development?
The answer was not reassuring. Harry Maguire immediately shanked a crossfield pass, Sterling miscontrolled. Moments later a superb chance fell to the feet of Stones, who airkicked with the goal at his mercy. There were complaints that Kane had been fouled in the same move, but there is no use complaining about missing a penalty when you have missed four or five simple chances. By half-time it seemed as though England had already missed more clear chances in 45 minutes than any other side in this World Cup had created in 90.
In the second half all the early fluency and slickness was gone: this was now turning into a classic England tournament performance, grinding their way to a disappointing result against unfashionable opponents. The bewildering thing was that as the time ticked by, Southgate never changed the shape. His substitutions were like-for-like – Marcus Rashford for Sterling, Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Alli. Quite why he felt it necessary to stick with three central defenders against a side that was barely attacking was difficult to understand, and his explanation after the game did not make things much clearer.
“We talked about this with the players over the last few weeks,” he revealed. “The way we will change the game is that we have a different profile of players who bring a different threat. No matter what system we play, we don’t feel we can get more players into those forward areas.
“The important thing is that you have structure to your play. You can put attacking players into forward areas, but lose structure and end up being counter-attacked. The guys that came on had a different sort of a threat, but you keep working and keep working, and in the end we got our reward.”
Southgate seemed to be saying he had been too worried about losing the game to risk any tactical gambles in pursuit of a win. In the end England got away with it, thanks to the deflection that took the ball to Kane. But having set out in this tournament hoping to change the conventional perceptions, England ended up reaffirming them. They know now they have an old-school England tournament performance in their locker, and the joy of victory will be mixed with an uneasy feeling that at any moment, the old habits could re-emerge
TUNISIA: Hassen (Ben Mustapha, 16 mins); Bronn, Syam Ben Youssef, Meriah, Maaloul; Sassi, Skhiri, Badri; Fakhreddine Ben Youssef, Khazri (Khalifa, 85 mins),Sliti (Ben Amor, 73 mins).
ENGLAND: Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Alli (Loftus-Cheek, 80 mins), Henderson, Lingard (Dier, 90 mins), Young; Sterling (Rashford, 68 mins), Kane. Booked: Walker.
Referee: Wilmar Roldan Perez (Colombia).