Twelve years, six managers, five major international tournaments (only four of which England qualified for), three FA chairmen and a corruption scandal. Last night, the waiting was over. Gareth Southgate’s youthful brigade of pioneers finally delivered what had eluded so many of their predecessors, an opening game win on the world stage.
The Russian elements did their best to impede England, as did the Tunisians. Stifling humidity, swarms of insects, the occasional rugby tackle to deny Harry Kane a sight at goal and an injury to Dele Alli, didn’t help. Yet ultimately, there would be no denying the Three Lions their long-awaited slice of first-game glory.
England’s class of 2018 have had an unnervingly smooth run-up to the World Cup. Southgate, in particular, has ensured there was no repeat of the media freeze-out that surrounded England’s training base in Rio de Janeiro four years ago. Nor has there been any sign of the boredom that characterised Camp Capello in 2010.
Come Tuesday, no amount of PR would have masked a poor result against a side whose star forward may find himself plying his trade in League One at the start of next season. Smooth preparation counts for nothing if there’s nothing to show for it at the end.
Convenient, then, that England began their debut fixture with such industry and spirit. Southgate’s decision to erase uncertainty or anxiety amongst his players by revealing his starting eleven to them over 48 hours in advance to kick-off appeared to be paying dividends. Leicester City’s Harry Maguire was preferred to Chelsea’s Gary Cahill, Ashley Young selected over Danny Rose, Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson instead of Tottenham Hotspur’s Eric Dier.
For the first ten minutes, England moved the ball with panache, ingenuity, and a confidence that bore no sign of their dismal record of just one win in eight World Cup games. So close they came, too, to breaking that deadlock within the opening exchanges. Twice, in fact. Jesse Lingard, the energetic centre of events, miscuing his shot from ten yards out and being denied by Tunisian shot-stopper Mouez Hassan. Then caught offside as he breached a static defensive line and once more bore down on the 23 year-old’s goal. England smelt blood. Their pre-match concern that full-backs Young and Trippier may be hemmed in their own half by the width provided in the 4-5-1 formation deployed by Tunisian coach Nabil Malloul, leaving the midfield trio of Henderson, Alli and Lingard outnumbered by Tunisian bodies seemed pacified.
Ultimately, England got their reward. A corner, whipped across Tunisia’s goal by Trippier, found its way towards the head of John Stones, who watched his thumping effort palmed away by Hassan. Cue, therefore, the discourteous arrival of Harry Kane. The newly-appointed captain volleyed the ball over the helpless Tunisian goalkeeper, and enraptured the 2,000 England fans present. Tunisia’s misery, deepened by the sight of Hassan clutching his shoulder and being escorted from the pitch in tears, seemed complete.
At that point, England simply reversed back into the listless mode that has disappointed so much in past years. Their passing less slick than just five minutes previously, their energy seemingly completely sapped. It was Tunisia’s turn with the ball, the midfield combination of Skhiri, Sassi and Badri proving particularly troublesome. Finally, the worst. Kyle Walker’s elbow connecting with Fakhreddine Ben Youssef inside England’s penalty area. Enough for Wilmar Roldán to point to the spot. Silly from Walker, soft from the referee.
Despite almost complete control following the equaliser, England, camped firmly within the Tunisian half, saw attack after attack thwarted by a combination of deep defending and a perpetual inability to play the final ball to find Kane or Sterling.
In return, Tunisia offered little, content to commit men behind the ball and frustrate England to a single point. Their game plan may have unravelled sooner had the referee spotted the desperate grappling at Kane by the North African rearguard.
Only once the quick feet of Marcus Rashford and the directness of Ruben Loftus-Cheek were introduced did England truly find their spark again. Yet, still no breakthrough. Instead, just a host of squandered chances – Lingard, Rashford, and Stones spurning opportunities.
Heartbreak for Tunisia came in the form of another set-piece, in a World Cup where they appear to be taking centre stage. Trippier again, this time a corner from the right-hand side, driven in towards the leaping Harry Maguire, whose headed flick fell to Kane (below), free at the far post, unflinchingly volleying past Hassan’s replacement, Farouk Ben Mustapha, for England’s first-ever stoppage time winner at a World Cup.
The blow for Tunisia may be difficult to recover from, as failing to get a result against Belgium on Saturday could prove all but terminal.
For England, this may be a mental boost. Reaping the rewards of their polished and unhindered build-up, and putting themselves in a strong position to come through the group stage, the result will give Southgate and his players confidence when they face Panama on Sunday. Harry Kane’s start will have delighted the manager, as will the performances of substitutes Rashford and Loftus-Cheek, which may cause selection headaches for Sunday.
Yet, it would be unwise to view this as a revolution. Defensive problems remain pertinent, with better sides than Tunisia capable of punishing the number of times the English back line gave the ball away, while the quality of finishing left much to be desired.
England’s start to this World Cup has only been extraordinary in the way it’s looked to move out of past shadows, but perhaps that in itself is a reason to get excited.