Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling showed promise in attack but England must be more clinical and tactically astute when they face Tunisia in the first group game in Russia
Let’s get clinical …
The best part of England’s performance against Nigeria was the interaction between their forwards during the first half. Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling formed a front two ready to exploit any space in the opposition’s back four. Behind them Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli played intelligently, almost taking it in turns to spring forward from midfield or look to bisect the opposition with a through ball. This was all promising. What the team needed was more decisive finishing.
Sterling and Lingard were the most obvious culprits, with the Manchester City man flicking his shot wide when one on one with Nigeria’s keeper Francis Uzohu then later blazing over from the edge of the box. Lingard, too, should probably have finished when played in at close range. Chances came thick and fast in the opening 45 minutes here, but it is unlikely they will do so when the tournament proper starts. England’s forwards will need to be as decisive in their finishing as they were in their approach play here.
… that means at the back too
For all that the game evened up in the second period, England were never in any real danger of giving up their lead. After conceding just after half-time to Alex Iwobi’s powerful strike from a rebound, they held on to a 2-1 lead. They did so without decent play being undermined by a glaring individual error, something that has become almost characteristic in recent years.
That said, such moments nearly came about, when wrong decisions under pressure could have led to trouble. John Stones, the nominal linchpin of a defence without an obvious leader, was the most culpable. If his instinct is never to choose safety first when on the ball, he still has to do better to make sure the progressive option is not unduly risky.
Another concern was that England were slow on the turn. Nigeria looked to exploit this from the first minute, especially down England’s left. Danny Rose was introduced for Ashley Young in the second half and his recovery pace might well be required in Russia.
Beware of the tactical shift
England’s performance in the minutes after half‑time was reminiscent of another showing at Wembley this season, when Juventus matched up Tottenham Hotspur and turned around a Champions League tie in minutes. Here, Nigeria switched from a back four to a three and scored within 120 seconds of the restart.
In both cases the change left a sense of confusion among the team playing in white; what were they supposed to do now that their opponents had assumed different positions? England will have to wise up about that. Admittedly no team will be able to make four substitutes as Nigeria did at the interval, but almost any team worth their salt will have a tactical alternative. England cannot be shocked like they were on Saturday if their opponents choose to shake things up.
3-3-4 might need some work
You could alternatively notate England’s formation as a 3-3-2-2 but either way it is not an entirely conventional configuration of a back five. With Eric Dier in effect the only central midfielder, Gareth Southgate placed a lot of confidence in him to do the dirty work for the team. He also trusted Lingard and Alli to work it out between them when to offer support.
Again, this worked well in the first half, less well in the second and was adjusted through substitutions (Ruben Loftus-Cheek replacing Lingard and stiffening the centre). The formation on Saturday offers real promise in forward areas and might be a good option against a World Cup opponent ready to sit in. It still needs more practice, however.
The tests will be tougher
It all comes back to this. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of this England performance, the game was still a friendly and offers no insight into what might happen in a match against similar opponents but played under pressure. This fixture was selected as a dummy run for Tunisia. The African side hardly scored freely in qualifying – 11 goals in six games, of which four came in one match – but also have a reputation for being obdurate in defence, which Nigeria hardly were.
Tunisia also defeated England’s next opponents, Costa Rica, in a friendly in March. The central American team are coming to the World Cup with little expectation and might need climate adjustment training before they step out at Elland Road on Thursday. They, again, will not prove the sternest of opponents. England and Southgate know what they have to keep working on, but will also be aware that the only real test of progress comes in 14 days’ time.