World Cup 2018

England vs Tunisia: Forget Belgium, Tunisia is crunch game for England

 • by Mark Thompson
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It is fitting that The Great Escape is one of the anthems of the England men’s national team.

A film about an unlikely adventure, overcoming the odds to escape an oppressive regime; England finally seem to have made it under the wire fence and escaped the oppressive expectations that have weighed the team down for so long.

By all accounts, this is a team more comfortable with themselves and the media than their previous generation.

Frank Lampard described the atmosphere that the media created around England as being like a war zone. This is a far cry from the recent press events where England players have been far more open, playing darts and ten-pin bowling with reporters, and leading to deeply personal interviews like Danny Rose opening up about his mental health.

If this lead-in to a preview of England’s World Cup opener has focussed heavily on the team’s relationship with the media, it’s because the two have been inextricably linked since the dawn of the Golden Generation.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The exciting talents of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and Marcus Rashford emerging, their youth freeing them from the burden of expectation; or the relenting of the English media’s seemingly ferocious desire to turn them into tabloid headlines (in most cases, at least)?

England’s line-up

England reporters in Russia have put forward their assumed line-up based on how the side lined up in training.

It is being reported as a 3-3-2-2, although that makes it sound like something unfamiliar when it is virtually the same as how Gareth Southgate’s side lined up against Nigeria.

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England will expect to dominate possession without having to do an awful lot of defensive work, which is why both Dele and Jesse Lingard look to be lining up in the central midfield area.

Against Nigeria, they alternated in filling that central space alongside Eric Dier – whose role will be played by Jordan Henderson in the opener – while the other contributed to the attack.

Harry Maguire being preferred to Gary Cahill also points to an assumption that progressive passing will be more important than out-and-out defensive values.

Going forward, England are well-drilled positionally and talented individuals. Getting Lingard, Dele, Raheem Sterling, and Kane playing in close proximity should lead to some good passing combinations which could be truly fantastic. The pace among those players should make England a threat on the break too.

Tunisia

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Tunisia persona radar under Nabil Maâloul.

Tunisia put up the most intense pressing stats of the 31 nations who went through qualification for the World Cup, albeit against a poor group.

One might have expected them to drop off and play more conservatively in pre-tournament friendlies against Spain and Portugal, but this isn’t wholly what happened.

Against Portugal in late May they came out in full force but quickly discovered that better teams were able to play through their counter-press. The Tunisians also seemed intent on playing out from the back to varying degrees of nerve-wracking effect, and it took them a while to dial down both of these tendencies.

For the latter part of the Portugal match, and against Spain, they settled on a relatively high defensive block, squeezing the pressing trap on occasion as the opposition passed it amongst their defence.

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Against Spain in particular, their defensive organisation in midfield stifled their opponents, making the 2008 World Cup winners look quite stale. Given England’s trouble at breaking opposing defences down, and the fact that Henderson – not the greatest line-splitting passer – is at the base of the midfield, Tunisia could be a tougher opponent than first thought.

Verdict

Tunisia aren’t a side who have a lot of big names or notable attacking talents who might cause England trouble. They showed some ability on the break in their pre-tournament friendlies but also struggled to build attacks successfully.

Their desire to keep the ball sometimes put them under pressure if their opponent decided to press, and given that England are capable of this they could well take advantage.

Nabil Maâloul’s side are probably a more difficult side to play against than they’re generally being given credit for, and could certainly be a fun side to watch.

England will still be favourites, though, and their performance should be a good barometer for how their World Cup will go.

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