In claiming only their third opening game victory at a World Cup, England provided plenty of positive signs. Without scrutinizing lapses in concentration, an uneasy defense and startling profligacy in front of goal, here are some things for England fans to optimistically cling to if they are to go deep into this tournament.
It’s all very well claiming to have a philosophy or a style in soccer, but little of it matters unless there are tangible signs on the pitch. Gareth Southgate, a long time employee with the national set-up, is well aware of what is wanted from the famed England DNA. He is arguably the best man to introduce it to the world on the global stage. And, for the first 30 minutes or so it was in clear evidence in Volgograd.
From the kick off England were positive. Playing on the front foot and attacking in numbers with intent. If the plan was to overwhelm their opposition with speed then it seemed to be paying off. This England team are set up to play to their strengths. Overlooking the lack of craft in the central positions in favor of a midfield that can break suddenly and decisively. Between Lingard, Alli and Sterling, the blueprints appeared to be in place for them to bombard their opponents with speed and incision. Their ability to harness these attributes for future games may well determine the success of their time in Russia.
Strength in depth
It’s rare in tournament soccer that a team’s first starting XI makes it through to their last appearance. For a country to succeed it needs to be able to rely on its strength in depth. Remaining flexible in adjustments to suit different opponents and introduce new tactical ideas.
On Monday evening, Gareth Southgate rolled the dice twice and both can be seen as unequivocal successes. Substituting a slightly injured Dele Alli and underperforming Raheem Sterling for Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. The youthful pair instantly appeared to be astute selections, providing a directness and high energy to a slowly fading team.
Southgate showed his ability to judge a game. He sensed what is needed and introduced it at the right moment and without panic. This bodes well for both the manager and his team.
It’s easy to think that England have long been masters of the set play but, in recent years, that has seldom been the case. Cast your mind back just two summers and you’ll find Harry Kane on corner duty and out of the poachers area from where he twice found the net against Tunisia.
In part he was there because there wasn’t an outstanding alternative.
Gone are the days of dependency on Beckham’s deadly accuracy or even Gerard’s quick passes. Against Tunisia England found an answer in its wing-backs, Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier. Both proved themselves wonderfully adept at delivering dangerous balls into the box with pace and accuracy. Their wide play lead not only to the two goals but was a constant source of hope for an England side well drilled in how to attack them.
If there was any player in the England team that fans would want a ball to fall to in the six-yard box it would be their captain Harry Kane. Similarly, if there was anyone fans would have wanted them to score their opening goal at this World Cup it would have been Harry Kane.
England’s captain went into this tournament without netting at the European Championships two years ago. With the knowledge that a failure to do so would not only result in the press sharpening their knives, it would also see his team face another early exit. Such is the importance of an in-form Kane to this young England team’s hopes of progressing.
So not only did he elicit large sighs of relief with his closing minutes winner but also with his 6th minute opener. As a nation, its manager and their talisman had a possible weight off their back already. For this to be a truly memorable tournament for England he will have to repeat the trick a few more times.
Opening games at tournaments are unquestionably difficult hurdles to clear. Take a look around the results of the first round of World Cup fixtures and this is further in evidence with Spain, Argentina, Germany and Brazil. All failing to win while France and Uruguay were fortunate to do so against heavily unfavored opponents.
By securing a victory in their opening game, and especially by doing so with a last-minute winner, England left Volgograd on a high and injects this young team with a welcome dose of confidence.
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