England vs Tunisia, World Cup 2018: Harry Kane at the double as Gareth Southgate’s side make winning start

Tunisia 1-2 England: Gareth Southgate's captain delivered when he was most needed, scoring a late header to spare England's blushes

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Volgograd Arena
Tuesday 19 June 2018 07:06
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World Cup Opening Ceremony

Harry Kane beat Tunisia on Monday night, but he did more than that. He beat the hand of history that was just minutes away from reasserting its cold grip over this England team, just as their World Cup was beginning.

With one normal-time minute left of their opener, England were heading for one of their most familiar stories of all: the disappointing 1-1 draw in which a strong start gave way to nerves, an equaliser, a burdened, anxious second half and ultimately an underwhelming point. Against Sweden in 2002, USA in 2010 and France in Euro 2012, we have seen this one before.

And that sorry point - two less than Belgium have - is exactly what England deserved when Kieran Trippier curled in one last corner kick in the last minute of normal time here. But Harry Maguire won the first header and there was Kane, lurking at the far post, swiveling his body to head the ball into the only empty corner of the net. It was his second close-range goal of the game, after tapping England ahead after 11 minutes.

England had the win, the three points to keep them close to Belgium, and as the players celebrated with the fans at the end, they shared the same mix of feelings. Glee, relief, and sense that this time might be slightly different.

Because this whole game was a test of this untested team, with their new manager and new captain. Kane and Southgate have been hammering the message recently that this is to be a fresh start, but few would have expected Kane to deliver quite like this. Two goals, one at the start of the game and one at the end, turning what would could have been a frustrating night into an exhilirating one. Even for a player who specialises in implausible comic-book decisiveness and maximum narrative pay-off, this was something else. He said on Sunday night he wanted to show the world what he can do, and that is exactly what he did.

And it was Kane, long before then, who made the most of England’s promising start. The opening minutes were almost everything Gareth Southgate would have wanted. Some wondered whether his promises of bold attacking football, of new patterns of play, would amount to anything here in the distorting pressure of a World Cup. But they did.

The football was exactly as England promised, especially with those incisive thrusts of Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard beyond the front-line, behind the Tunisian defence, blowing open the game from the start. In the first five minutes England could have scored three times. Had they done, the win might have been easier than it was.

But no-one knew that back then, and any immediate worries that all that pressure and hard work would count for nothing only lasted another five minutes.

Harry Kane opened the scoring early in the first-half

That hunger to fight for the ball finally paid off, when Harry Kane forced a corner. John Stones’ header was saved but there was Kane to tuck away a simple finish. It instantly felt like the start of something: England’s first of the World Cup, Kane’s first in a tournament, the beginning of the serious bit of the Southgate era.

There was a brief spell, when England piled forward in pursuit of a second, when the players did indeed look like the unburdened fresh-starters Southgate wants them to be. And if Lingard had finished Ashley Young’s free-kick then maybe they might have been, in a far more comfortable win than this.

Kane's scored his first goal at a World Cup after just 11 minutes

But there is a familiar old pattern to these games, one that is so internal to us that there is almost nothing that can be said to exorcise it or deny its compelling power: England start openers well, and then they wilt. The early goal in 2010 led to a draw with the United States, just like against Sweden in 2002, or France at Euro 2012. England did nothing after scoring against Paraguay in 2006, scraping the win. Their brief fight-back against Italy four years ago amounted to nothing.

Kyle Walker gave away a penalty kick

Sure enough, with the lead in their hands, and everything set up as England would want, the nerves emerged. And they leaked in from the most vulnerable part of the team, that untested unfamiliar three-man defence. Maguire over-complicated, Walker failed to clear and Tunisia had their first real attack of the match.

The next time Tunisia broke away down the right, and they had an equaliser that would have felt barely believable when England were slicing through them at the start. With Fakhreddine Ben Youssef lurking behind him in the box, Walker misjudged, swinging out a left arm and bringing him down. Ferjani Sassi put the penalty into the bottom corner.

Tunisia hit back from the penalty spot

So there it was, the old habits were back and the lead was gone. And England had to do something else they have never been good at: getting up after getting hit, and starting to play their football again. That was the real problem of the Sweden 1-1 or the USA 1-1, to look backwards again into the past. Not just conceding the equaliser. But not doing anything after they had.

England’s job was to start the second half the same way they started the first. And they couldn’t, not even close. There was none of the same zip in possession, none of the same runs in behind. None of the risks, bravery, imagination or any of the Southgate qualities they had showcased at the start.

There were two particularly contentious VAR decisions

When England were at their best though, they were ignited by Dele Alli and he was never the same after pulling up with a tight groin in the first half. He was nearly taken off for Fabian Delph back then, and looking back, he should have been. Because he did not do much until his eventual withdrawal for Ruben Loftus-Cheek 10 minutes from the end. Marcus Rashford had already come on by then, for Raheem Sterling who had another one of those games where he always looked on the brink of pulling off something miraculous, only to always turn into trouble, get blocked off or not quite get his feet right.

England were out of ideas and out of options when they won that crucial 89th minute corner. But they were not quite of luck, and there was Kane to do what he does best, pouncing on his second tap-in of the match, winning them the game and saving them from themselves.

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