Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Perhaps the hand-wringing over the lack of adventure shown by North African sides will cease now. Nabil Maaloul’s Tunisia had a go here. And quite how they survived an absolute caning is anyone’s guess.
Let’s give credit where it’s due, first of all: Tunisia played some attractive football in passages during the first-half. Intent upon keeping the ball on the floor, with only the 5’9″ Wahbi Khazri available up top, Maaloul’s side bravely tried to play through Gareth Southgate’s impressively organised press.
In fact, it was the Tunisian press, sporadic as it was, that posed more problems; with Harry Maguire particularly discommoded by efforts to close the lumbering centre-back down. Maguire’s cumbersome play coughed up two chances to his opponents; the Leicester City man denying one with a recovery block, and relying on an untimely Khazri slip to extinguish the other.
Unfortunately for Tunisia, Maaloul’s 4-1-4-1 shape made it difficult to pressurise England’s main first-phase man, Jordan Henderson. The Liverpool midfielder’s freedom to play long passes in behind Tunisia’s kamikaze offside-line caused havoc in the first-half. As did the complementary runs of Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard, who both continually ran off Tunisia’s sleeping midfielders into the always-gaping channels.
Maaloul’s widely-spaced back-four also proved unwise in the face of England’s genuine strike partnership, comprised of Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling. Centre-backs Syam Ben Youssef — impressive here — and Yassine Meriah found themselves perpetually marooned in two-on-two combat with their Premier League counterparts; a battle they were always unlikely to win.
And so it proved for Kane’s opener, when the Spurs striker and Sterling played around Ben Youssef to force a corner. The resultant goal was one of 13 shot attempts Tunisia gave up from set-pieces; a World Cup 2018 high thus far. Maguire looked likely to win the first header every time; as, indeed, he did in second-half stoppage-time to tee up Kane’s winner.
By that point, of course, Tunisia had rode their luck to an almost ridiculous degree. Kane’s first-half goal aside, England wasted a further four clear-cut chances before the break, with Jon Stones (second-ball, indirect free-kick), Alli (Young cross, free with a team-mate at back-post), and Lingard (twice: Alli cut-back; lofted Trippier through-ball) all culpable.
Those chances dried up in the second-half, however, as Maaloul wisely switched to a lower-block; coupled with what looked like a 5-3-2 formation.
Fakhreddine Ben Youssef, the right-winger who popped up on the left to win his side’s equalising penalty, began to play as a more permanent wing-back. Although, Ashley Young’s high positioning, paired with England’s extreme left-wing focus, made him look like one throughout most of the first-half anyway.
Naim Sliti’s transition to a more central role, just off Khazri, curbed England’s positional enthusiasm. And an additional centre-back — Dylan Bronn moving inside from right-full — closed off those previously cavernous channels.
Alas, Bronn’s newfound centrality curbed one of Tunisia’s few attacking threats, too. The Genk full-back fired off a warning to England on 22 minutes, when Alli only belatedly decided to shuttle out — and, therefore, conceded a corner.
Unfortunately, that warning wasn’t heeded, as it was a Bronn cross that confused Kyle Walker into getting his body shape wrong, leading to the foul on Ben Youssef. Ferjani Sassi’s penalty, incidentally, proved to be Tunisia’s only shot on target of the evening.
With both sides nullifying each other after the break, then, the second-half degenerated into a chance-free deadlock, which even the dribbling abilities of both Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus Cheek could not break.
Ultimately it was left to England’s out-ball, Trippier, to both win and take the decisive stoppage-time corner. The Spurs defender created four chances from set-pieces (and two in open-play), more than justifying a starting berth that’s had many scratching their heads in recent weeks.
Sure, Walker’s talents are much better employed at wing-back than centre-back, as we clearly saw here. But, with no obvious set-piece taker in the squad, Southgate may have seen Trippier’s inclusion as necessary on that basis. Dead-balls, after all, have long held an outsized importance at international level; well over half of the goals scored at this tournament so far have resulted from them, for example.
And for Tripper, read also Young, whose inclusion as a right-footed left-back, ahead of Danny Rose’s natural width, also baffled many. But the Manchester United man also came up trumps at a dead-ball, sending in the corner-kick that inspired the opener.
All told, perhaps Southgate knows what he’s doing. Many of the relatively untested manager’s young side press and counter-press for their clubs, and they are now doing so for their national side, too. And, for once, England look a threat at set-pieces to boot; albeit against a side, here, that simply cannot defend them.
There will be a worry about this system when Lingard and Alli are asked to shuttle out to genuinely elite wide-defenders. But, for now, all is rosy in the English garden. Onward to Sunday, and Panama.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112