02 Dec England’s World Cup journey – what we’ve learnt so far
Following two wins and a draw, England are through to the last-16 of the World Cup and face Senegal on Sunday for a place in quarter-finals.
The Three Lions finished top of Group B with relative ease, and while the goalless stalemate against the US was tedious and largely unimpressive, phase one is now complete and Gareth Southgate’s side came through it unscathed.
Just two goals conceded – in the 6-2 drubbing over Iran – and a total of nine scored sees England emerge as one of the bookmaker favourites to go the distance in Qatar, but first they must navigate their way through a tricky looking tie against Senegal, before facing the possibility of a quarter-final against the winner of France vs Poland – likely the former – in the last-eight.
Things are progressing nicely for the defeated Euro 2020 finalists, but what exactly have we learnt so far from the three games Southgate’s men have completed in the Middle East?
England are a much better team with Kyle Walker in the side
Having struggled with injury this season, Kyle Walker missed out on the Iran and USA games but was integrated back into the fold for just under an hour against Wales. The Manchester City defender is arguably the best right-back in world football, and having his presence at the back was invaluable as England cantered to a 3-0 victory over Rob Page’s side on Tuesday evening.
Kieran Trippier is a fine footballer and performed well against Iran, before looking a little off the pace against the US – although it is worth noting that nobody covered themselves in glory during Friday’s snoozefest. Walker’s international experience at the back was telling against Wales and if we are to progress further than the last-16 then he must line up against Senegal.
Should we get past Aliou Cissé’s side on Sunday, and France do as expected and beat Poland, having Walker’s pace up against Kylian Mbappe will be pivotal. We saw during last season’s Champions League encounter that the Frenchman could not get past the lightning-quick 32-year-old, and if you nullify Mbappe then you greatly hinder France’s ability in the final-third.
Kane needs more service in vital attacking areas
It would be a lazy observation to say that Harry Kane has had a poor tournament just because he hasn’t scored and has failed to register many shots on target in Qatar. The Tottenham forward might be England’s focal point up front and one of the best strikers in the world, but there is a great deal more to his game than meets the eye.
Southgate has clearly tasked Kane with a certain job, and that is to drop deep into midfield to collect possession and act as a link between defence and attack, rather than constantly playing off the shoulder as the team’s highest man.
With his passing range and exemplary vision, it is understandable that Kane and his talents are being utilised in this way but as the tournament reaches the business end there will be an increased requirement for goals so as to avoid another dreaded penalty shootout situation.
With so much attacking talent present in this England squad, so far Kane’s quietness in front of goal has not proved to be an issue, with the likes of Rashford and Bukayo Saka stepping to the fore.
In the 6-2 win over Iran, Kane failed to get on the scoresheet but he still played a hugely influential role in creating half of the Three Lions’ goals – registering three assists – which makes him the highest assist-provider in Qatar so far. This is all well and good, but now it is time that some of his teammates start to repay the favour and begin to pick out Kane in front of goal.
It will only take the net to bulge once for the Spurs marksman for his World Cup campaign to explode in the way many envisaged it would pre-tournament. Like most strikers, he is a confidence player and failing to score in three games will undoubtedly be weighing heavily on his mind. This can – and most likely will – easily change, though, but he needs adequate service from his supporting cast for it to do so; it has so far been painstakingly lacking.
Rashford has to start
Much had been made about Marcus Rashford’s wavering form in the run up to the World Cup, and after being left out of the squad for September’s Nations League matches it looked as though the Manchester United man would miss out on selection for this winter’s tournament.
However, an upturn in form at club level in the run up to the World Cup kick starting saw him included in Gareth Southgate’s 26-man squad – a decision that has proved to be an extremely shrewd one given his campaign so far.
A quick-fire goal fresh off the bench against Iran was followed by a stunning brace against Wales, where he was included from the outset, with his first a tremendously well-taken free-kick.
Rashford has surely cemented his position in the starting XI for Sunday’s showdown against Senegal, and looks back to his very best playing off the left hand side of an explosive front-three alongside Harry Kane.
His pace and dynamism is something which can hurt an opponent who have so far failed to keep a single clean sheet in Qatar, and with so much confidence pulsating through his veins, the 25-year-old could well prove the difference in an expectedly cagey affair where the stakes are as high as ever.