#JDSays: English media must give Southgate peace of mind to ponder next XI

John Dykes John Dykes

John Dykes reckons England’s narrow win over Tunisia was a decent start to the 2018 FIFA World Cup but warned that Gareth Southgate has a selection dilemma in defence.

Big tournament tradition dictates that England’s football team should be gripped by introspection at about this stage of the competition. Refreshingly though, in the wake of their 2-1 win over Tunisia, it’s not the usual “where-did-it-all-go-wrong?” but rather, “where-do-we-go-now?” that is being asked of them.

After a first week in which few of the “big” teams really impressed, England’s far more modest outfit at least came away with three points from their first game. Another win, over an ordinary-looking Panama side, could well guarantee progress from the group stage along with the Panamanians’ first-game conquerors Belgium. That alone would be an enormous improvement on the Three Lions’ last World Cup outing when they were knocked out within a week of the thing kicking off.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. It is notoriously risky to draw too many conclusions from opening games at major tournaments and the likes of Germany, France, Brazil and Argentina will be insisting that their best is still to come. England were handed a relatively easy group stage assignment and are expected to at least make it to the Round of 16.

However, the win over Tunisia in Volgograd was noteworthy for the fact that it posed more questions than it answered about Gareth Southgate’s young team. Not that this is a bad thing, as those questions by and large involve England’s management having to now choose between two or more worthy candidates in a couple of positions.

In marked contrast to the aftermath of England’s depressing 1-1 draw against Russia at the European Championships two years ago, in a game played out against a backdrop of sickening violence between fans, the England camp can ponder one or two tactical and selection dilemmas in peace and without a hysterical media clamoring for substantial changes.

There were one or two parallels between the games in Marseille and Volgograd: in both instances, England front three looked pacey and dangerous from the outset, without killing the game off. Also, England once again dropped their intensity and incisiveness badly in the second half of the Tunisia match, just as they had against Russia. Unfortunately, after both games, Raheem Sterling came in for criticism after skittish performances.

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Now, given the intrusive and frankly offensive agenda against the player that has been shown by certain tabloid newspapers, Sterling’s failure to convert a decent early chance was unfortunate. As a consequence, he never really settled and was guilty of trying to force things. Perhaps he suffers in the England shirt from being forced into a peripheral role rather than that he occupies for Manchester City, where he very often pops up as the focal point of the attack.

England’s focal point is of course Harry Kane. Two years ago, exhausted and unfit after a demanding club campaign, he became a huge problem for England: blocking the way for the likes of Sterling and Adam Lallana, dropping deep into a congested midfield, even taking set-pieces. Against Tunisia, Kane was at his best: finishing coolly from close-in twice, otherwise keeping a low enough profile to allow his teammates to express themselves. History has taught us that any team hoping to progress deep into a tournament needs to have a prolific goal-scorer in their ranks. England certainly have one and he looks sharp.

Dele Alli’s injury was unfortunate as he had looked England’s most classy player. Hopefully it is not too serious, as I would like to see the Spurs man pushed forward to replace either Sterling or Jesse Lingard, whose finishing was woeful. That would allow Ruben Loftus-Cheek to start and to bring his composure and probing passing to the midfield. However, if Alli has to be rested, it might be worth giving England’s wide men another chance against Panama to show that their profligacy was simply down to first-game nerves.

The other major talking point from the Tunisia game concerns the right side of England’s defence. I have tended to be of the opinion that Kieran Trippier is a good, solid 7/10 of a player, whereas Kyle Walker is an 8/10 or even 9/10 in the wing-back role. However, as Walker struggles to learn new skills as a centre-half and was guilty of at least two positional errors, Trippier turned in an excellent performance against Tunisia and would be unlucky if he lost his place in the side.

So, does Southgate back Walker to come good or does he have an obvious replacement, less likely to cost his team a goal or a penalty? Gary Cahill for instance? As enterprising as Harry Maguire is, he has an error in him and England cannot afford to go into big knockout games with too much uncertainty at the back. I’d keep Maguire but ponder the mix. Right now, Walker can’t claim to be a must-pick at wing-back, but his place in the team is under threat. Which is unfortunate. I’d probably give him another chance to come good in the same role but only because Panama are hardly fearsome opponents.

So, a couple of talking points as I said, but it really wasn’t a bad night in Volgograd for England. In truth, they could have been 3-0 up inside 11 minutes and they had subsequent chances to make the game safe. The only thing that worried me was that lessening of intensity and focus in the second half, which looked partly the product of fearfulness. Here’s hoping, probably in vain, that the tabloids don’t invent some spurious scandal or drama around the team and that Southgate and his players can quietly go about their preparations for the next match.