England started their World Cup campaign on Monday night with a 2-1 win over Tunisia. Having gone a goal ahead through Harry Kane, they were made to sweat after a soft penalty was awarded against Kyle Walker in the first half. England dominated with pressure and chances but had to wait until injury time before wrapping up the three points.
This was the first time England have won the opening game of a major tournament for 12 years and three Manchester United players played their part in the victory.
Jesse Lingard was the most impressive of the lot and should have claimed an assist for himself after delivering a perfect ball across the face of goal. Raheem Sterling was presented with a simple tap-in but fluffed his chance.
Lingard was lively throughout and came very close to scoring himself, but after beating the keeper, his toe-poke hit the post.
At the back-post, Lingard had another opportunity to score but didn’t make the contact he would have liked, and struck an early attempt which forced a good save from the goalkeeper.
Still, when you consider that Lingard wasn’t even on the back-up list in the squad for the European Championships two years ago, he’s done well to get himself in to the starting line-up, as England’s no.7.
Gareth Southgate has been a fan of the United academy graduate since his days of managing him in the U-21 England team. His faith in in Lingard has proven well-placed, with him playing a key role in Southgate’s 3-5-2 formation.
The manager needs someone with good movement off the ball, who can provide options going forward, has quick feet and can manoeuvre in tight spaces, all of which Lingard can bring to the team.
Ahead of the game against Tunisia, Lingard revealed that he has been studying Spain’s Andres Iniesta in a bid to improve.
“I used to watch Iniesta a lot, I liked him,” he said. “You just pick up little things of what they do and try to put it into your game. It’s just the way he graces the pitch. He’s silky, an intelligent footballer. And people have said I’m an intelligent footballer, so I have to learn off the other players that are intelligent and play in the same position as well.”
Lingard has some way to go before he can be compared with Iniesta but his keenness to learn and refine his skill has obviously impressed the England manager.
While Jose Mourinho has been derided for plenty of things over the past two seasons at United, he’s received little credit for how Lingard has flourished, for both club and country.
Lingard’s finishing wasn’t good enough against Tunisia though and he will be disappointed with himself for not ending the game with at least one goal. But the fact that he created these chances for himself, and others, is testament to the attacking threat he can bring to the team.
While Lingard’s inclusion in the line-up of late may have come as a surprise, nobody would have believed that Ashley Young would be starting for England in the 2018 World Cup a few seasons ago.
Having gone four years without a call up to the international team, Southgate picked him for the friendlies against Germany and Brazil last November after Mourinho has used him as a left-back at United all season.
“I wasn’t in England squads but I never gave up hope of getting back in,” Young said before the tournament kicked off. “I just had to get out there and play football as well as I could, and hopefully the England manager would call me up again. Now he’s done that and I’m going to a World Cup and the excitement for me is massive. I’m delighted. I’m like a kid inside and I just want to get there and get the tournament started.”
It was from Young’s corner that England scored their first goal after delivering an inch-perfect cross to John Stones. His header forced a top save which left Kane with the tap in.
Marcus Rashford replaced the disappointing Sterling for the final 20 minutes and provided more attacking threat than the Manchester City man. While Rashford will obviously be eager to start England’s next game against Panama on Sunday, he has recognised that this is a team game and he can still play an important role as a substitute.
“You need a squad to win a tournament like this and that is what we are trying to do,” Rashford said. “It’s not the be all and end all to be on the bench for one game. In the squad that we have here everyone understands that. It’s going to have to be a team effort if we are going to bring the trophy home.”
Rashford’s pace and tricky feet are the last things tired defenders will want to face in the last 20 minutes, so you can see why Southgate might be keen to leave Rashford on the bench as an option to come on.
Still, it’s so far, so good for the United players, and for England too. Here’s hoping one of our lads can bag a goal for themselves at the weekend.
Follow Scott Patterson on Twitter @R_o_M
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