World Cup 2018

England must show ruthless streak against Panama

 • by Mark Thompson
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To say that Panama is a nice second group game for England to play is both probably true and probably a jinx.

If England win then their chances of making the round-of-16 will look unassailable and the final match against Belgium will likely be a shoot-out to see who tops the group.

Panama managed just seven shots, five of which came from outside the box, and two shots on target in their opener against Roberto Martínez’s side.

And, quite frankly, England are a better team than the Belgians.

Introducing… Panama

You’ll probably have guessed this without watching them play, but Panama are a side who wouldn’t look out of place filed under ‘traditional English football’. Aim to defend compact, and play direct football in attack.

Even in qualifying their game was characterised by crossing and conceding chances.

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They kept this up against Belgium – 14 percent of their attempted passes were long balls, compared to just seven percent for Martínez’s side.

Even eight minutes into the game, their general defensive strategy was clear.

They weren’t totally passive, though. When they lost the ball, a man would go and close down the Belgian who picked it up to pressure them while Panama got back into shape.

Whenever Martinez’s side were passing it amongst their centre-backs, a Panama man would sometimes move out of their defensive shape to apply a little pressure, and definitely would if a midfielder dropped back.

Where Belgium could have been better was to apply some pressure on Panama when they got the ball. It’s not that they were a huge threat with it, but it gave their opponents some respite, a feeling that they had a foothold in the game.

Over to England

Part of what England did so well against Tunisia was just this – England’s average defensive action was the highest up the pitch out of the first round of games. Only five of their seven tackles were in their own half, and two of those were right on the half-way line.

England would be wise to keep this up against Panama, and if Southgate’s attackers combine like they did in the first half of the opener then this counter-pressing could yield serious results.

The only other major note is that England’s back three might face more long balls than they did in their first match. Panama occasionally got in behind Belgium’s back three this way – although when they did, they didn’t do much with it.

The fact that both of England’s wing-backs have played in the position before, rather than being recently adapted wingers, should also avoid vulnerabilities in that area of the pitch. Panama’s best chance of the game against Belgium came from a chipped ball in behind the defence to right-back Michael Murillo who Yannick Carrasco should have been tracking.

How it will shape up

There were holes in Panama’s defence that a more cohesive Belgium side could have exploited. Fortunately for England, they have a similar talent level to the Belgians while also being a far more cohesive unit.

There are still worries about how well England can break down sides who defend deeply though, and the second half against Tunisia did little to dispel those. Southgate’s side had a lot more possession up the pitch, but forced precious little from it until the goal right at the death.

Steve Holland’s notes, captured on camera, suggest that Raheem Sterling will be dropped for Marcus Rashford and that Dele Alli’s fitness question marks will see Ruben Loftus-Cheek start.

If that is the case, then Loftus-Cheek’s ability to run past men could come in handy, bursting through spaces in Panama’s midfield to interchange passes in dangerous areas.

England should win. But Argentina should have more than one point, Germany should have been good enough to avoid defeat to Mexico, Brazil should have been good enough to beat Switzerland. Things happen and this is a tournament where England fans are supposed to be keeping expectations low.

England should still win.

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