Tunisia 1-2 England: 5 big talking points from Volgograd
Harry Kane's 91st-minute winner rescued England from a frustrating draw against Tunisia as the Three Lions got their World Cup campaign off to a winning start.
The Tottenham man flicked home a header in the dying embers of a difficult night for Gareth Southgate's side in Volgograd, having given his side the lead on just 11 minutes with a similar opportunistic goal from close range.
But despite a thoroughly dominant display, England were pegged back on 33 minutes when Ferjani Sassi converted a penalty after Kyle Walker had flicked out a stray arm at Fakhreddine Ben Youssef inside the box. It looked like they'd have to settle for a point having run out of ideas in the second half – but eventually, finally, they got their just desserts when Kane nodded in at the death. Eesh.
Southgate's system is right
If we didn't already know that. Southgate has earned plaudits for making sensible, logical choices so far as England manager, but the fruits of his work were clearly on show in Volgograd despite the laboured final scoreline.
England started magnificently in this game – the first 25 minutes were a showcase of stylish, quick and slick football that had the It's-Coming-Home-ometer cranked up to 10 – and even got the first goal their performance deserved through Harry Kane after 11 minutes. They could have easily scored earlier than that too, and definitely should have either side of Tunisia's equaliser.
Simply, it would have been a travesty had they not come away with three points. But there's only so much that Southgate could have done. This system looked balanced; the full-backs provided width, midfielders moved for one another and England's defenders were heavily involved in the build-up. They created numerous chances but simply didn't take enough of them – and sometimes you just can't put it down to more than that. Which takes us to...
Oh, those chances...
Two minutes: Jesse Lingard firing at the keeper's legs. Four minutes: Raheem Sterling somehow contriving to miss an open goal from two yards (admittedly, would have been ruled out for offside). 11 minutes: GOAL! 24 minutes: Lingard bobbling one wide after a glorious ball in from Ashley Young. 38 minutes: Dele Alli hitting the crossbar; John Stones scuffing the follow-up horribly. 43 minutes: Lingard seeing a rasping volley deflected over.
This was just the first half for England: you get the picture. On another day, Southgate's side would have been a few goals to the good and been home and dry before half-time. Instead, they conceded a soft equaliser and toiled during the second half to find a winner that eventually arrived in the 91st minute. Phew.
Defensive lapses offer warning
England's defence has long been an area of concern, but Southgate has tried hard to revamp it since taking over. Chris Smalling has been discarded altogether, Gary Cahill shunted to second choice, while Phil Jagielka hasn't played since November 2016. In their places are players with ball-playing pedigree to change the Three Lions' style altogether – in theory, at least.
In an ideal world, John Stones is the crown jewel of Southgate's back three; Kyle Walker the surprise pet project. Harry Maguire is a deserved pick off the back of a strong debut season at Leicester, but struggled against Tunisia with some poor distribution that could have cost England. It's a lot to ask of a relatively inexperienced centre-back with very few caps to feel comfortable at the heart of an England backline, but some harsh realities must be faced if and when England come up against wilier opposition.
Walker had no such issues on the ball, but was the culprit in giving away the penalty that let Tunisia back in. Ultimately, his challenge wasn't necessary and gave referee Roldan a decision to make – possibly a harsh one which England found themselves on the rough end of. Either way, Rio Ferdinand was unamused. "If Kyle Walker is positioned correctly, he doesn't concede a penalty," huffed the former stopper. "A centre-half facing his own goal when a ball is coming into the box is criminal."
... but don't panic
There are fine lines between a good result and a bad one; a performance to be remembered and one that merely adds to the suffering.
England will try to play the same way in their next game against Panama and rightly so. On many other days this game would have easily gone their way – a first half out of sight, leading to a much more comfortable second which the Three Lions could have seen out comfortably. The quality of their first-half opportunities warranted such a scenario.
Football might not be coming home just yet, but England are off the mark with maximum points. They put us through the mill with this one, but got there in the end – and that's what matters. Now FourFourTwo is off for a beer. Or seven.
Pain in the VAR-se
England couldn't really have major gripes with the decision which went against Walker – VAR was never going to overturn it, since it wasn't a clear and obvious error. Some will argue it wasn't even an error at all.
But what they could rightfully take umbrage with was the rugby tackle on Kane inside the box five minutes before half-time which led to absolutely nothing. The challenge during a set-piece was laughably obvious – and will have been reviewed by the video assistants – but wasn't awarded by Roldan, the same referee who penalised England for a similar infringement. The same thing happened again five minutes after half-time.
The question, then: if VARs are watching at all times, what exactly are they looking for?