All throughout England’s preparations for the 2018 World Cup, there had been talk of a new, healthier, stronger mindset in the camp. This is a country that has suffered more than its fair share of footballing indignities at major tournaments over the years, but Gareth Southgate, at least on the face of things, had started to heal those scars.
With 90 minutes played of their group opener against Tunisia, though, England faced the first test of their new supposedly strengthened mindset. Things had started so well, with Harry Kane giving the Three Lions the lead in a first half dominated by Southgate’s side. But the award of a penalty for a foul by Kyle Walker returned a familiar sense of dread to proceedings.
England toiled for much of the second half as they searched for another breakthrough, although it should be noted that Tunisia rarely threatened. While England might have been largely passive from the restart until around the hour mark, they never looked likely to concede again.
Nonetheless, a 1-1 draw in their opening group game wouldn’t have represented a good start for England at this World Cup. A point against Tunisia could have placed added importance on the final group game against Belgium, a scenario which Southgate and his players set out to avoid right from the moment the draw was made.
They could have panicked. England of old surely would have lumped long ball after long ball into the Tunisian penalty box in the hope of a lucky knock-down or a ricochet. Instead, England persisted with their game plan until the very last moment. In the end, that decision paid off as Kane headed home the winner at the back post from a corner kick.
This might not have been the most comprehensive of victories, but it could provide England with the springboard they needed at this World Cup. Before Monday night’s game in Volgograd, England had won just five of their last 23 opening fixtures at major tournaments. Therein lies some of the problems they have faced at previous World Cup and European Championships – they often leave themselves chasing the game, chasing the tournament.
Now, Southgate and his players can relax somewhat in the knowledge that a win over Panama, surely one of the worst teams in the tournament, will all but secure their place in the round of 16. Everything hinged on that opening game against Tunisia and now England’s World Cup can truly begin.
“We talked about this with the players at St George’s Park over the last few weeks before coming to Russia,” Southgate explained afterwards, highlighting how he preparing his players for such an event. “The way we’ll change the game is by bringing on a different profile of players, who carry a different sort of threat.”
Indeed, there are a number of reasons for England to be positive after their win over Tunisia. Players like Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek made a real difference off the bench, with Jesse Lingard and, of course, Kane shining. But most positive of all was England’s new mental strength.
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