By Neil Leverett
- England earned deserved late win against Tunisia in Volgograd
- Harry Kane grabs brace to give Three Lions first opening World Cup game win since 2006
- Gareth Southgate’s men can guarantee place in last 16 on Sunday by beating Panama
VOLGOGRAD, RUSSIA – After England’s late, late show against Tunisia on Monday, what did we learn from the Three Lions’ win in Volgograd which puts Gareth Southgate’s men in the box seat for last 16 qualification?
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Kane can be England’s King in Russia
Harry Kane’s crucial brace for England on Monday night can firmly consign any doubts of whether he can convert his lethal form for Tottenham Hotspur, into goals for his country’s colours.
After the Three Lions’ spectacular failure against Iceland in Nice at Euro 2016, Kane’s portrayal of a lethargic, frazzled and rather rabbit-in-headlights persona might have been enough to throw scrutiny over his lack of success on the big stage.
Following His Volgograd clinic in how to simply put the ball in the net however, those fears can surely now be put to bed. The 24-year-old is arguably England’s only truly World class individual and the Spurs man once again proved his point.
Unfathomably, it was at the last European Championships when Kane was assigned to set pieces – rather than be in his proving grounds of the penalty area – and those plans of two years were made to look foolhardy at the very least.
It does make one wonder what England might have been capable of had Kane been on the end of balls instead of delivering them, but in the short term the confidence he, the team and the England’s fan will have received knowing he can bring the bacon home for Head Coach Gareth Southgate is huge having seen the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku light up Russia already.
His poachers finish for the opener and winning goals in stoppage showed his clinical best as he has in the Premier League, which many feared would never show its’ head at football’s biggest show. Providing England overcome Panama on Sunday having booked a last 16 berth, Kane could become England’s man in Russia this summer.
Henderson continues to mature
If Kane stole the show on Monday night, Jordan Henderson surely came a close runner-up on the banks of the Volga. As a man much maligned in fan circles across the English game, the arrival of Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool – much like many of his charges on Merseyside – has strengthened the midfielder’s facets to his game and is now a vital cog for both club and country.
Henderson’s lack of an incisive pass has been questioned but on a number occasions against the Eagles of Carthage, the former Sunderland came up with an answer for his critics.
Not only that, but with England opting to play a more attacking system with just the one holding midfielder in Volgograd, the 28-year-old added a cool head to Southgate’s set-up and rarely put a foot wrong.
Approaching his thirties, Henderson is nearing close to a final product of a mature, composed holding midfielder, with a decent eye for goal to boot. If and when England elect to go once again with just the lone marshal centrally, the choice between the Liverpool man and Eric Dier is a close call, but if Henderson continues to display his abilities as more than just a handyman – even with sterner tests set to come – his place is surely secured.
Sterling has much to prove
The win over Tunisia brought many positives during England’s performance but if one were to point the finger, it would again be in the direction of Raheem Sterling.
Whilst many of the Three Lions have been able to show glimpses of their domestic best in England colours, Sterling just simply cannot get any sort of form going for his adopted nation
Despite once again having a stand-out season for Manchester City, the 23-year-old is scrambling to break a close to three-year gap since his last England goal and the signs of drought were evident in both his hesitancy in front of goal and in a wide area, and some would say just a sheer lack of pure good fortune.
Bad luck or not, the forward was again source of exasperation in trying to the distribute the ball into the final third and was repeatedly frustrated by a dogged Tunisian back line.
Sterling has electric pace and is supremely talented on the ball, but his numbers are just not coming up for England. Whilst I would still persist with him in the starting XI for the simple fact he will open up Panama wide open frequently this weekend, after Jesse Lingard had an impressive outing and with other players banging on the door of the starting XI, Sterling is under pressure to deliver on Sunday.
Loftus-Cheek and Rashford banging on door
Which brings us onto the two men who came on as substitutes on Monday night. Kane rightly took the plaudits for his goals, but the energy that both Ruben-Loftus Cheek and Marcus Rashford injected into a rather flagging troupe, was in no small part a direct ingredient of England’s late rousing effort.
As Dele Alli was withdrawn late on with a slight injury, the Chelsea midfielder added drive to the Three Lions’ game for the final twenty minutes and found crucial pockets of space on the right, in a second period that had become congested – winning the corner that led to Kane’s winning goal.
Whilst Loftus-Cheek is yet to prove himself in West London, his progress at Crystal Palace in spurts this season on loan has shown the stocky and wily enforcer as a player with talent. It has been in an England shirt however, the 22-year-old from Lewisham has impressed most. As an individual with the ‘X’ factor for Southgate, ‘RLC’ as he has been dubbed gives England a level of composure and class in opening up the play that could be vital as the tournament goes on.
Rashford would have likely started in Volgograd had the Manchester United star not picked up a slight knee strain, following a energetic and exciting display against Costa Rica at Elland Road earlier this month.
Coming on in the latter stages when the men in red were lacking a spark, Rashford provided the fuel to re-ignite the engine in attack and on numerous occasions led the Tunisian defence a merry dance.
Of the two, Rashford is perhaps the least likely to start on Sunday, but the sheer knowledge of what the winger-cum-striker can bring to the table off the bench leaves both Southgate and fans with the optimism Rashford can swing the momentum of a game with one tap of the pendulum.
Southgate is a canny operator
England’s win must also be credited to the coach. For years now, fans and pundits had called for the national side to play with freedom and express themselves and on Monday night the evidence was there for all to see.
As his side tore Tunisia apart in the early stages, it was only a lack of end product that kept the game alive in the opening throes before Kyle Walker conceded a penalty that was England’s only real threat to deal with during the entire 90 minutes.
On the subject of that, playing Walker has drawn raised eyebrows as due to his inexperience as centre-back which resulted in the Manchester City defender’s poor body positioning that saw his arm raised to block the aerial presence of Fakhreddine Ben Youssef in conceding the penalty.
But the decision to play Walker in defence is a bold one that should be applauded, and in any event is a better proposition that either Phil Jones or Gary Cahill.
When a roll of the dice was needed to ring the changes, Southgate brought on the players that the game needed in Volgograd, that few of his predecessors would have had the courage to make. With Sterling clearly struggling again, Southgate had no qualms in replacing the winger for Rashford – a gamble which eventually paid off.
The options are there for England off the bench that is clear, but it takes a man of presence and fortitude to put them into play on the field particularly as a replacement. As Southgate celebrated wildly after Kane’s act of heroism in his manager’s skipper, Southgate was rewarded for his brave approach. Success for England this summer is now a realistic proposition and it is Southgate who should be commended thus far.
England play their second Group G game against Panama in Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday at 13:00pm BST
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