It’s under a week until England kick off their World Cup campaign against Tunisia, and once again there is a budding sense of possibly naive optimism slowly spreading around the country. Could Gareth Southgate and his unusually young England squad actually live up to their potential for once? Or will it simply be another summer of half-expected disappointment for England fans?
The answers to those questions can only be answered in time, but we can edge closer to an accurate prediction by analysing the two warm-up friendlies played out earlier this month.
England 2 – 1 Nigeria
Gareth Southgate wasn’t messing around at Wembley as he named a strong squad, although they were without Danny Rose and Harry Maguire due to slight injury niggles and Jordan Henderson after his Champions League Final the week before. Apart from that it was a formidable team that contained all the big guns.
The opening goal came from an unlikely source though, with Gary Cahill scoring a rare England goal in the 7th minute after being set up by Kieran Trippier. He followed this with an assured defensive performance for the rest of the match, putting him back in the frame for the starting lineup against Tunisia. Prior to this performance Harry Maguire was the man expected to work alongside John Stones and Kyle Walker, but Cahill has given Southgate a real choice to make.
England dominated the first half from start to finish, and Nigeria seemed completely incapable of dealing with their midfield diamond and pace and trickery. Harry Kane doubled the lead just before the break with a well finished drive, continuing his excellent goalscoring record for England under Southgate.
The second half was less impressive for The Three Lions. Nigeria made some tactical switches at the break to nullify the attacking threats of England, and the introduction of Alex Iwobi actually put the visitors on the front foot at Wembley. Iwobi bagged a goal just two minutes into the half, and the pressured display from the home side throughout the second half will have been concerning for the manager.
We saw both sides of Raheem Sterling at Wembley too. The Manchester City attacker brushed off the recent outrage surrounding his tattoo and put in a hard working and promising performance, but once again he failed to bring the clinical nature that saw him score 18 league goals for The Citizens. He has only two goals for England so far, and he spurned a fair few chances to increase his tally here. His blatant dive in the second half saw him pick up a deserved yellow card too.
England 2 – 0 Costa Rica
Five days later and the England squad were at Elland Road to face the side that held them to a goalless draw in Brazil four years ago. It was here that Southgate opted to experiment, making ten changes to the starting lineup and giving the likes of Jack Butland, Phil Jones, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Fabian Delph, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Marcus Rashford, and Jamie Vardy the chance to impress.
It was one of these in particular that seized this chance. Marcus Rashford started off the ripples of a selection headache on 13 minutes as he reminded everybody what he was capable of, smashing a dipping shot into Keylor Navas’ net and remaining a threat throughout the first half. His constant pressing and pacey dribbling put the Costa Rica defence under huge pressure throughout, and it was a performance that Southgate can’t ignore.
Costa Rica never really had a sniff of an attacking presence throughout the game, and the 2-0 scoreline was well deserved, the lead doubled by substitute Danny Welbeck’s diving header after yet another smart ball from Dele Alli.
Overall, it was an assured performance from a side who are largely on the fringes of the squad. The performances of certain players are bound to open up the options in Southgate’s head, and he’ll be optimistic about the strength in depth that his side showed against a deceptively tough Costa Rica side.
What Did We Learn About England?
Southgate isn’t playing two holding midfielders
It’s the news England fans are rejoicing over. Okay, so not quite, but it’s a big step to a more positive style of football. In both friendlies Southgate has opted for a single holding midfielder, which will be either Jordan Henderson or Eric Dier. This offers some vital attacking ability in the centre of the park, and it’s a role that Dele Alli adapted to surprisingly well against Nigeria.
Of course, the fact that England only have Alli and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to fill that position is somewhat of a worry. Surely England would have benefited from another option or two in that position. Jack Wilshere, perhaps?
Marcus Rashford still has it
Ever since Marcus Rashford burst onto the scene a few years ago he’s been touted as a future England star. However, a frustrating season at Manchester United has led to some murmurs of complaint around his selection. He’s still only 20 years old, but Jose Mourinho’s stubborn insistence on pushing him out to the left seems to have dulled his appetite for the game.
That hunger came roaring back against Costa Rica with an excellent display from the youngster. He was employed in a more central role just behind Jamie Vardy, and it seems to suit him much better. The fact that he capped his performance with a stunning strike will have given Southgate some serious food for thought. Raheem Sterling is still the favourite to get the starting berth, but Rashford’s performance does mean that England have something special in their ranks still.
Southgate believes in his system, but will have to adapt
Gareth Southgate has now played eight matches in a row with this back three, and he seems convinced by Kyle Walker’s abilities in that role. His system has remained largely unchanged throughout this build up, and it’s clear that it’s working defensively. Offensively there is still work to be done, but the manager believes that this is the best way to get the most out of his players.
However, Nigeria’s second half tactical switch showed that England need to have the flexibility to adapt this system on the fly. Nigeria completely nullified England’s attack after the break, and if Nigeria can do it then you can bet that the top teams in the world can too, and punish them more efficiently at the other end. If Southgate’s system is going to take England far, it will need to be worked on.
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