England make a straight line for the quarter-finals. And then another. And another. That is perhaps the best way to describe this coruscating 3-0 win over Senegal, driven by Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden, as Gareth Southgate’s side reached a third successive quarter-final in major tournaments.
It is only the third time England have managed that in history, which points to how the manager has made a virtue of navigating knock-out rounds. Harry Kane meanwhile seems to rise to them, given this was the second successive tournament where he got his first goal after the group stage.
Such a quality really shouldn’t be dismissed given the difficulty other heavyweight teams have had, not to mention previous England sides. Some of their predecessors might well have panicked under the pressure Senegal created in the opening half-hour, but it brought the opposite response out of Southgate’s players – especially Bellingham.
They showed the clearest focus in simply driving through Aliou Cisse’s team with such conviction, surgically taking advantage of their abandon just at the moment when Senegal seemed to believe they could do something improbable here.
That came just at a point when there would have been an understandable frustration with Southgate’s set-up, and why it was more vindication for his decisions. Jordan Henderson, who had been one of the more debated starting inclusions, opening the scoring.
Cisse might well point to the fact Southgate had such options, even allowing for Raheem Sterling having to withdraw from the squad through personal reasons. Senegal were missing two of their three best players, and it was always going to cost the African champions.
It might well have been different had Sadio Mane been playing. Southgate’s critics might also argue that it is another forgiving knock-out game in how Senegal were missing their best player, just as Colombia were in James Rodriguez at this exact stage four years ago.
This was a push too far, that England ruthlessly exploited.
That push did involve a few early scares, mind, as Senegal genuinely outplayed England for a period and Ismaila Sarr caused havoc. That perhaps offers a warning given what Kylian Mbappe might be able to do on that flank. Sarr should have scored with one chance, and then set up Boulaye Dia for another. Jordan Pickford got a strong hand to the latter, as Southgate’s side were looking rather fragile.
It quickly became apparent that was applicable to Senegal’s sense of momentum.
As is so often the case in this type of game, though, an inability to take chances against a side stacked with quality attackers leaves you at the mercy of them showing you how it is done.
And both England goals were beautiful, the sleekest type of surging moves. It was the clean straight lines of the attacks that were so appealing – and pointed to how clinical they were.
Central to that, very literally, was Bellingham. It was his surges that were key to both goals.
For the first, Kane played Bellingham in, the midfielder then cutting it back for Henderson to finish first time.
For the second, the teenager picked it up himself, breaking open Senegal’s midfield before playing it to Foden. The Manchester City playmaker intelligently reversed it for Kane, who at last got his first goal of the World Cup with an emphatic finish.
England were away. The second half was a completely different game. Protected and emboldened by the lead, England began to express themselves.
The third goal involved another surging run but this time a nonchalant finish, as Foden this time cut down the left before squaring for Bukayo Saka. The Arsenal winger clipped the ball beyond Edouard Mendy for one of England’s cutest goals of the tournament so far.
This ended up one of their most controlled performances, the attack brilliantly releasing when required.
Many will point to the early period as a warning but, as Argentina showed with Australia, you are rarely going to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup – and especially against the African champions – without a few scares.
More relevant is how England got through that, and how they keep getting through knock-out games under Southgate.
Next up is perhaps the hardest knock-out game he’s faced yet – including Croatia 2018 as well as Germany and Italy in Euro 2020.
That’s who you have to eventually face if you are going to win a World Cup, though. It is almost never as straightforward as games like this.
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