WORLD CUP COMMENT: Put those knives away... for now

One clever twist of Harry Kane's neck changed the mood of a nation tonight (June 18).

Monday, 18th June 2018, 10:54 pm
Updated Tuesday, 19th June 2018, 4:56 pm
Harry Kane scores England's second goal against Tunisia.

Make no mistake, knives were being sharpened, horrible headlines were being written. Most of them would have been aimed at manager Gareth Southgate, many also at a staggeringly incompetent referee, until the captain scored his second goal.

Results always colour the level of performance. England were good for 30 minutes, but pretty ordinary for the other two thirds of the game. It’s a ratio that will get us through a lame group, but probably no further.

England deserved to beat Tunisia. With an international-standard referee we would have scored four goals, all of them from set-pieces which is a concern, but this wasn’t the ‘exceptional performance’ the increasingly irrational Gary Lineker tried to claim after the game.

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Converting scoring chances is a rather important skill and England lacked it apart from Kane whose positional awareness close to goal is remarkable. Raheem Sterling is a Rolls Royce in Manchester City blue, but a pushbike for England. Jesse Lingard finishes like a Manchester United reserve and Dele Alli’s poor season looks like continuining into the summer.

None of this seemed likely to matter until Kyle Walker stupidly gave away an equaliser from the penalty spot with a clumsy foul.

England were lively, quick and incisive until Tunisia drew level. They were then pedestrian, error-prone and erratic until the final moments. The lack of a midfielder with the ability to split defences open will hurt even against the weakest teams. When Fabian Delph was suggested as a replacement for a limping Alli in the first-half the groan in my household almost lifted the roof.

But as England’s last competitive tournament match had ended in defeat at the hands of Iceland, any win should be greeted warmly. Just remember if Roy Hodgson was still in charge we’d have lost 1-0 as Kane would have been taking corners rather than scoring from them.

Southgate impressed by hauling off the useless Sterling when the temptation must have been to leave him on and hope for a semblance of his club form.

But Southgate rather unnecessarily kept three centre-backs on the pitch when England were chasing a win against a team not interested in attacking. Unless part of the masterplan was knowing a set-piece was the most likely route to a goal. Both assists were given to defenders.

A good start (there are only nine places between England and 21st-placed Tunisia in the FIFA World rankings), but not one that suggested a run to the quarter-finals is on the cards. The strength in depth just isn’t there which is a worry as the starting XI has too many flaws.