Nibbled at by rampant midge-fly and harassed by a combative and cunning Tunisia, England produced an enterprising and gritty performance in Volgograd, but needed the full 90 minutes and more to find a winner against the African side.
The English started aggressively, with rapid interplay among the forwards exploiting an initially compact Tunisian set-up that left plenty of room behind its back line. They were particularly effective when Raheem Sterling dropped deep into midfield, with Dele All running beyond. Tunisia adjusted shape, dropping deeper in the centre, but this simply invited England to move the ball into wide areas, finding space behind the full-backs.
In the first early exchanges, England created chances from open play almost at will, a number of them falling to Jesse Lingard. The Manchester United man’s running from midfield was dangerous, but his finishing wasteful. When England's breakthrough came on eleven minutes, it arrived, somewhat surprisingly, from a set-piece. John Stones met a corner with a powerful header, which Tunisian keeper Mouez Hassan could only palm down into Harry Kane's path.
It was a commanding performance from the World Cup’s least experienced side, but warning signs were present, especially at the back. England’s three centre-halves never looked entirely confident moving the ball out of defence; Harry Maguire’s passing was suspect under pressure while Kyle Walker looked edgy and uncomfortable from the start. England’s best transitions in the first half often involved long passes into the channels, bypassing the deep midfield, where Jordan Henderson was subdued in the early phases.
Profligate with their first half chances, England were to surrender their lead on 35 minutes. Walker’s brittleness was exposed as he tamely stuck out an arm at Fakhredinne Ben Youssef while defending a cross. The referee blew for a soft penalty, which Ferjani Sassi put just beyond Jordan Pickford’s reach. The wind seemed gone from England’s sails, doubly so when the energetic Alli sustained a dead leg, after which his contribution to the match was never the same.
Tunisia started the second period brightly, swapping the first half’s long passing for a running game that at times threatened the heart of England’s defence. They were resisted without great difficulty, however, and with an hour gone, the game settled into a steady rhythm. England were less obviously impressive than in the first half, lacking the energy with which they started the game, with Alli subdued and Sterling struggling to connect with the rest of the forward line. In many ways, however, England’s second half performance was mature and controlled. Resisting the temptation to charge forward or pump in long balls in search of a winner, England passed carefully out of defence, making improved use of Maguire’s attacking qualities and Henderson’s passing range.
It was an approach that almost seemed to have run out of time, even after Marcus Rashford and Reuben Loftus-Cheek were brought on for Sterling and Alli, repsectively, to reintroduce some verve. Tunisia - content, for the last half hour, to sit in a low block and defend resolutely for the draw - conceded one final corner on the right. Maguire - a menace from set pieces throughout - headed down to the far post where Kane twisted his body to head in. England had frustrated their fans for long period and at times looked to have wasted the opportunity to win this game, but patience and possession were rewarded at the last.
By Matt Worth
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