Back in the sanctuary of the Premier League, results aren’t always everything. After all, a promising performance which doesn’t yield points can always be excused on account of what its essence promises in the future.
At the World Cup, not so much. Nor, incidentally, does the old adage about luck levelling out over the season carry much weight.
Thankfully, England needn’t dwell on that. Monday night’s 2-1 win over Tunisia didn’t quite come in a game without a tomorrow, but failure to win would have almost certainly left them needing to beat Belgium. Gareth Southgate’s squad may be open, they might be refreshingly human, but they remain a side in embryonic form and that kind of pressure would likely have proven intolerable.
Monday night produced so many familiar themes that, from around the 70th minute onwards, the result had appeared inevitable. Having been gifted parity by that extraordinary penalty decision, the north Africans dug in. They may not have been pretty and they might have played fast and loose with the boundaries of sportsmanship, but they nevertheless retained a stubborn shape, congesting the middle of the pitch and forcing England to rely on low-percentage combinations to break through.
When the sand began to drain away and injury-time arrived, the impending reaction shaped itself. In fact, the gears of negativity were beginning to grind on social media: this was toothless and uninspired, apparently, another set of World Cup points surrendered by flimsy concentration and a lack of ruthlessness. England were really none of those things, they played extremely well for long periods of the game, but disappointment and the circumstances it enforces demand an overreaction in this country.
The twist in the tale provided a wonderful relief from that tedium. Harry Kane’s late header sent the England players into a happy muddle in the far corner of the ground and, back home, the prospect of that face off with Belgium all but vanished. The true importance lay in the difference, though. It may be hard to prove, but it seems certain that previous sides would have surrendered to their fate before Kane met Harry Maguire’s flick-on. Instead of continuing to plot routes through and round the Tunisians, those players’ minds would have drifted to the following morning – to the bilious attacks in the tabloid press and the descending doom about to surround them.
So yes, this team is showing signs of difference. Not of overwhelming talent or power, but certainly of being less inhibited. That’s a major victory. After Iceland, Uruguay andGermany, of course it is. Much of what has been written has been proven true already. These players do appear to get on better. There is a club-esque strain of spirit binding them.
And Southgate, too. He has been cast as the footballing everyman during the build-up to this tournament, the mid-point between the mistakes of the past. He’s intelligent, calm, and respectful indifferent to the more belligerent voices in the press. Some of the more nuanced evaluations have also praised his tactical craft and his reluctance to panic under pressure – and Monday night validated those assessments to an extent. His substitutions were productive, with Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek both providing doses of urgency, and he resisted the “all the forwards” fallacy that Roy Hodgson too quickly embraced in 2016.
“Why keep three centre-halves on the pitch against this team?”
Because one of them, probably the most physically dominant player on the pitch, might just overpower his markers and help you win the game.
Southgate succeeded by not just making decisions which would stand up to a post mortem. In the event of a draw, it would have been hard to justify leaving Jamie Vardy on the bench and, in spite of a chronic lack of form, maybe also difficult to explain keeping Danny Rose and the natural width he provides off the field. We all think we’re right about the game all the time and those who write about the game can be terribly certain in our convictions, but Southgate showed us for fools. Good for him.
It was still Tunisia and it was still a result England should have achieved, but Southgate still thought his way through the game. It’s a fairly rudimentary quality in an international head-coach – true – but still not one England have benefitted from too often in the past.
Crucially, all that really mattered on Monday night was that the embers of enthusiasm for this team weren’t extinguished. Some will certainly choose to fly red flags between now and the game with Panama, and focus instead on the profligacy and that brief wavering of focus in the first-half. Unfortunately, they will have missed the point. The World Cup is very much a “we won, you didn’t” competition and, for the first time in a while, England are on the right side of that equation.
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Also published on Medium.