Tunisia vs England post-match analysis
England ranked 12th in the FIFA World Rankings kicked off their 2018 World Cup campaign against Tunisia who were ranked nine places lower, an easy start some had suggested. The usual media storm which seems to surround England in major tournaments, a refreshing thing of the past as Gareth Southgate aimed to break down barriers and unite everyone with a shared belief. No fallouts, a squad which was named weeks ago and a fully fit 23 players to pick from, at times it became boring to watch the meticulously devised plan of Gareth Southgate and his support staff come to fruition. However, watching on as a sport scientist this was music to our ears, we just needed the performances to match!
England’s starting 11 held little surprise as it had been reported in various media outlets for a number of days. Gareth Southgate opted for a 3-5-2, a system which had been worked on during a successful qualifying campaign. Tunisia employed a rigid 4-5-1 with the objective to frustrate England by making the game a tight contest (see Figure 1).
"That first 20 minutes had some of the best football I have seen so far this tournament." – Jermaine Jenas.
Within the first 20 minutes England were sensational, they were bright, forward-thinking and attacked with purpose. At times it was like watching Red Arrows fly forwards with both Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli making forward runs to get in behind the Tunisian defence. When you dominate you have to capitalise and score, England did! A well worked corner brought a fantastic save from Ben Mustapha to deny John Stones’ header but Harry Kane was on the mark to follow up with a simple tap in. England were in dreamland, but they wouldn’t let up. Attack after attack piled on the pressure which Tunisia did well to survive. England had eight shots, six of which were on target within the first half an hour, an impressive start from a team usually burdened with the pressure of a nation! (In fact, it was their most shots on target in an opening 45 minutes of a World Cup match since the 1966 semi-final against Portugal).
Then disaster struck, a cross into the box was going to be easily dealt with but play was halted as Kyle Walker caught a Tunisian attacker with a flailing arm, a penalty awarded! Kyle Walker with hindsight could have possibly prevented this by adjusting his body position so instead of facing his own goal, he was open to see both his goal and the ball, either way it was very soft indeed. Tunisia took full advantage scoring with their only shot on target as Pickford was unable to stretch his fingertips to keep out Sassi’s penalty, 1 – 1 with 10 minutes of the first half left to play. England tried to recover and wrestle back control before halftime but the scores would remain level. A half that started so well, ended in frustration but certainly provided a platform to build on for the second half…
(Figure 2. Tunisia formation in the second half, source: wyscout.com.)
Intensity drop in the second half
England faced a simple task, maintain their performance levels of the first half in the second half. However, they were faced with a Tunisian side which resorted to an even more defensive 5-3-2 formation (see Figure 2), which worked in frustrating England by limiting space for them to make forward runs which had been so successful in the first half. England’s play became slow, laboured and predictable resulting in a pretty dull second half. Only the introduction of Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek would breath some life into England and add some much needed pace into their play.
Unfortunately, one of the main talking points from the game will not be how England found a way to win in the most challenging of circumstances but rather how the use of the ‘Video Assistant Referee’ (VAR) failed to pick up on at least two clear penalties for England. Tunisia used an aggressive man-to-man defensive set up from corners which led to scenes more suited to WWE rather than a football pitch. The evidence is clear from all sides, England were extremely hard done by especially considering Croatia had been awarded a penalty against Nigeria the night before for arguably a much lesser holding offence from a corner. The frustration on the most part does not lie with the referee missing the initial incident (most corners have some sort of grappling taking place) but rather how the VAR were unable to clearly identify a penalty after consulting the video evidence! The introduction of VAR is welcomed across all of football, however at the current moment its implementation is questionable, seemingly still dependent on referee interpretation with incidents such as these only further highlighting the unpredictable nature of its use. Clearly, FIFA have a lot of work to do in order to develop VAR further but as sports scientists we welcome and look forward to the developments, ultimately it will be good for the game as a whole.
The importance of set plays
The importance of set pieces cannot be underestimated as half of the matches played so far in the World Cup have been decided by a goal scored from a set play, while half of the total goals scored in the competition have been from dead ball situations (corners, free-kicks, throw-ins and penalties). England set up an aggressive approach, with six attackers in the penalty box for corners. They set up a 4v3 on the edge of the penalty area with their best headers of the ball present (Stones, Maguire and Kane). Henderson was the fourth member who would make the first run to drag the defence back towards their goal and create space for others around the penalty spot. Two other England players occupied the six-yard box, which forces the defenders closer to their own goal and limit the possibility of any England players being caught offside on the second ball. Harry Kane is one of these players, so he is in the perfect place for any knockdowns or rebounds. If you watch Gareth Southgate as Stones’ header is parried by the Tunisian goalkeeper for England’s first goal, he asks “where’s Harry?”, suggesting this tactic is a deliberate ploy for Kane to take up positions where he is left with simple tap ins. Kane’s second goal comes from him making a run which is not tracked by the defence to score a header from a few yards out.
Man of the match
Kieran Trippier earned many plaudits for his performance, being England’s most creative outlet even though this was only his eighth appearance in an England shirt. His set-piece delivery caused Tunisia problems all night, the winning goal being a perfect example of his quality but his role as the right wing-back was fundamental to the success of Southgate’s system. Trippier created six goal scoring opportunities which is more than any other player has managed so far in the 2018 World Cup. He has certainly made the position his own, it will be interesting to see if he can maintain his current levels of performance throughout the tournament.
There were plenty of positives to take away from this game for England, as they came into this game as the team with the fewest international caps out of the whole tournament (465 caps in total). They certainly didn’t play like a team with limited experience but rather were energised with a young, vibrant feel which saw England score more than once for the first time in 10 World Cup matches, since a 2-2 draw against Sweden in 2006. England’s set up worked well, Henderson acted as the pivot to start most of the attacking plays with his considered passing and the full backs advanced positions providing width (see Figure 3). Confidence should be high going into their next game against Panama, who lost 3-0 to Belgium, as England found a way to win as the game was seemingly heading for a 1-1 draw. It would be surprising if Gareth Southgate looked past an unchanged team as they look to emulate their first 20 minutes performance across a whole match. If this can be achieved then England could prove to be a match for any team in this tournament, roll on Sunday at 1pm for Panama!
Figure 3. England passing map and average positions, source: wyscout.com.
Key summary points:
- The performance levels were good, England controlled the game
- Finishing needs to be improved in order to put teams to bed
- Henderson did well as the pivot in midfield, acting as the start of attacking plays
- Alli and Lingard worked well to make forward runs from midfield
- Conceding a goal seemed to affect the England players, in future a better response is needed
- The intensity of England’s play dropped in the second half, the substitutes had a positive effect but could they have been used sooner?