Manager Gareth Southgate also took solace in England’s possession on a night when they completed 180 more passes than their opponents, giving them a three-point cushion ahead of more challenging encounters
Harry Kane's England rewarded for their patience in win over Tunisia at World Cup
History is England’s constant companion in major tournaments. It is often their burden, too.
Comparisons with the past can both elevate expectation and serve a reminder that underachievement on the global stage is a national trait. Yet they are unavoidable.
Harry Kane’s injury-time decider against Tunisia was England’s latest winner since Gary Lineker and David Platt’s extra-time deciders against Cameroon and Belgium in the 1990 World Cup.
But for that, it would have been another opening draw: those in 1966, 1990 and 1996 may be regarded as good omens, those in 1992, 2010 and 2016 rather less so. As it is, England are positioned to avoid the first-round exit they suffered in 2014.
The manner of victory brought the set-piece specialist Sam Allardyce to mind – both goals stemmed from corners aimed at centre-backs, with John Stones winning the initial header for Kane’s opener and Harry Maguire for his winner. But the reality of it pleased his thoughtful successor.
“In the end you wear teams down and that’s what happened,” Gareth Southgate said. “Good teams score late goals.”
Talk of the spirit in the England camp feels more valid when a late goal provides proof. Southgate took solace in England’s patience and their possession on a night when they completed 180 more passes than Tunisia.
And yet England’s was a patchy performance, blistering at the beginning, mixed thereafter, marked by creativity, profligacy and sterility within the same game.
The fast start revived memories of Steven Gerrard’s fourth-minute strike in the 2010 opener against the United States and the 2-0 lead England held after 18 minutes against Portugal in 2000; those games ended in a draw and a defeat respectively. They were microcosms of a team’s capacity for false dawns.
“It looked like it could be one of those nights again,” Kane said. His wretched Euro 2016, his installation as captain, his status as the personification of Southgate’s young, eminently polite England made it both imperative and symbolic he scored.
“He is the optimal striker,” the beaten Tunisia manager Nabil Maaloul said. "The spaces that were created by Kane were very scary to us.”
England’s fear factor may only stem from their No 9. Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard spurned presentable chances and Southgate’s England, scorers of a mere 29 goals in 19 games, are not clinical enough. “I got slightly worried about the lack of finishing quality,” former manager Allardyce said.
Meanwhile, Dele Alli was hampered by a quad injury that should have brought his removal earlier, but which he hopes will permit him to play against Panama on Sunday.
If not, or if Lingard is demoted for a game when his running off the ball may be less of a factor, Ruben Loftus-Cheek promoted his claims in a cameo. The midfielder’s attributes had been outlined by former England manager Roy Hodgson, who oversaw his progress at Crystal Palace last season.
“He is very good at screening, keeping the ball,” he said. “He’s very good at beating players. His work-rate has been very good.”
Each was apparent.
“The way we’ll change the game is by bringing on a different profile of player,” Southgate said.
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Loftus-Cheek’s profile is unique in this England squad. Tellingly, the manager persevered with his 3-5-2 formation, altering personnel rather than system in the search for a winner. There is a pleasing, and uncharacteristic, emphasis on England playing between the lines.
There was another endorsement of Southgate’s decision-making in the choice of Jordan Henderson as the holding midfielder. The Liverpool captain is a more penetrative forward passer than is often acknowledged, as he showed with some perceptive balls.
If Kyle Walker’s unfamiliarity with the role of a right-sided centre-back may have been a contributory factor when he conceded the penalty for Tunisia’s goal, Kieran Trippier excelled as a right wing-back.
Monday ended with the slightly surreal sight of the former Burnley and Barnsley defender topping the lists for delivering most crosses and key passes in the World Cup. His set-pieces may retain an importance, especially if England struggle to source goals in other ways. They can expect to be confronted by a blanket defence when they face Panama.
But at least they have the cushion of three points. They cannot always say that after one game.