Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Even the most facile of victories can harbour harbingers of future failure. So it proved for England, who coughed up four quality chances to tactically inept Panama.
Hernan Dario Gomez must have been in a giving mood, as the Colombian’s set-up looked tailor-made to make Gareth Southgate look good here. Having watched Tunisia’s offside-line gift several first-half chances to England’s midfield runners, Gomez obviously decided it would be rude not to oblige, too.
And so Panama’s defence squeezed up: their manager aiming to compress the midfield space as much as possible, and cut England’s attacks off at source. To that end, 37-year-old striker Blas Perez was also asked to stand goalside of Jordan Henderson when Panama were out of possession; which, of course, was most of the time. The Central Americans, as such, remained extremely compact from back-to-front throughout.
A fine strategy, one might think. Unfortunately, the success of such a ploy hinges on midfield pressure; staunching through-balls at source. And unsurprisingly, given the manner in which Gomez deployed his wingers, that’s a facet of the game at which Panama did not excel.
Rather than track England’s wing-backs up and down, Panama’s wingers — Edgar Barcenas and Jose Luis Rodriguez — instead immediately helped to form a back-six at turnovers. Panama’s 4-5-1 therefore morphed into 6-3-1, creating two cavernous spaces either side of their central-midfield three. And England, to their credit, filled them to devastating effect: enter Kieran Trippier and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
Goals one and two may have resulted from dead-balls, but they originated from this right-wing double-act. The variation between the pair perplexed Panama’s static defensive unit: one ran in behind, pinning Rodriguez back, allowing the other to avail of free-space.
For John Stones’ headed opener, it was Trippier who provided the depth, winning the corner-kick that the wing-back himself delivered with aplomb. And for Harry Kane’s penalty, Loftus-Cheek took up Trippier’s mantle, affording the Tottenham man space and time to loft the through-ball that tempted Fidel Escobar’s foul.
Not to be outdone, Ashley Young, Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling then combined to cash in on the space to Armando Cooper’s right. With right-winger Barcenas resolutely moored to his right-back, midfielder Cooper was drawn out to press Young on the touchline. Sterling and Lingard duly worked a one-two around holding midfielder Gabriel Gomez, teeing up the latter’s curler.
England tacked on another two goals from set-pieces before the break, as Panama’s holding-dependent man-marking spectacularly blew up in their faces. But the five-goal leading margin masked some real scares invited by England’s threadbare defensive shape.
The fear, always, with Southgate’s 3-3-2-2 was Henderson’s potential isolation in front of his defence. Most elite managers now favour guarding against counterattacks with a five-strong defensive wedge; either a 2-3 or a 3-2. Pep Guardiola, for example, plumps for a 2-3, tucking his full-backs in slightly either side of Fernandinho to block opposition breaks.
Southgate, however, appears satisfied with a 3-1 shaped rearguard. And, on the basis of this game, it’s likely to cost his country dearly against tougher opposition.
Anibal Godoy’s chance, after just five minutes, was extremely instructive in this regard. Barcenas intercepted a Stones pass to Young on the halfway-line, allowing both Godoy, and his central-midfield partner Cooper, to break freely into England’s half. Cooper duly found Godoy, who sliced embarrassingly wide from the edge of the area. Henderson was completely overrun.
Barcenas’ successful pressing sortie, of course, also demonstrated the folly of his manager’s counter-productive 6-3-1. Impressive going forward, the 24-year-old — who plies his trade in Mexico’s second division — regularly received possession in the space behind Lingard.
Panama’s attacking shape, with Gomez dropped into a temporary three-man defence, allowed the full-backs to advance, gifting Barcenas plenty of overlapping help from right-back Michael Murillo. Young, without a winger to protect him, often found his hands full. That, too, will pose a problem against stronger sides.
Barcenas and Murillo reprised Trippier’s relationship with Loftus-Cheek on a much smaller scale, creating two nervy moments for England. The first saw Barcenas, free to Henderson’s right, slash wide. And, later, Barcenas popped up free between the lines again to set Murillo running in behind Young: the full-back should have scored.
England also gifted Panama two late clear-cut chances from set-pieces; Stones attempting to undo his set-piece double by letting both Roman Torres and Felipe Baloy go. The latter scored, sending all of Panama into raptures. Baloy, 37 now, has been the country’s best player for over a decade. As retirement gifts go, a World Cup goal certainly beats a gold watch.
Raheem Sterling’s foul on the dangerous Rodriguez conceded the decisive free-kick, capping another disappointing outing for the Manchester City forward. Like Lingard, Sterling’s off-the-ball radar is impeccable. But, technically, he lags far behind his continental equivalents, as evidenced by spurning yet another clear-cut chance here.
At least Loftus-Cheek, in for the injured Dele Alli, acquitted himself well. But allowing the 22-year-old to extend his burgeoning understanding with Trippier carries with it significant risk.
Regardless of who England face in the knockout phase, pairing Henderson with two attack-minded runners will, almost certainly, end in tears. And better sides, likely to out-possess England, will surely aim to overload Young; which, given his defensive performances for Manchester United, should yield results.
England are through: that is the headline. Harry Kane is scoring goals, Jesse Lingard is running in behind for fun, and Steve Holland’s attacking set-piece routines should exact further damage. But significant doubts linger over Southgate’s 3-3-2-2 system. The real tests of its mettle are yet to come.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112