England kick off their 2018 World Cup campaign with a match against Tunisia. The African nation are positioned 21 st in FIFA’s World Rankings, fewer than ten places behind their opponents; Gareth Southgate’s side enter the game as favourites, but this could prove a tougher test than many are expecting.
This is undoubtedly a crucial fixture for England – not only does every nation want to start off the tournament on the front foot, this is a game against the on-paper ‘third-best’ team in Group G. A failure to beat such opposition can be catastrophic, turning a routine group into a struggle for qualification. Tunisia’s recent form will be enough to worry Southgate: they have drawn 2-2 in preparation matches against both Portugal and Turkey, and they only lost to Spain after conceding in the final ten minutes. This last game probably gives a reasonable insight into what England can expect. Tunisia showed respect for their opponents by operating a deep line, more of a 4-5-1 than the 4-3-3 that saw them score twice against the Turkish. They lack the stars to take the game to the best sides – Anice Badri, who scored in both friendly draws, is one of many who still plays in the Tunisian top flight – but they have a cohesion and understanding that makes them hard to break down. There is Premier League interest at the heart of this sturdy defence: Yohan Benalouane of Leicester is one of the bigger names in the Tunisian squad, but he is far from guaranteed to
be given a starting spot given the strong group of defenders at manager Nabil Maâloul’s disposal. That is not to say that the Tunisians will not look to launch attacks of their own, as evidenced by their displays against Portugal and Turkey alike, but England can expect a frustrating ninety minutes.
The exact team that will be tasked with breaking down the North Africans is as yet unsettled. Gareth Southgate has made use of his warm-up friendlies by experimenting with various different personnel; the team put out against Nigeria appears to broadly represent what the manager considers to be his strongest XI, and the first-half performance in that game certainly vindicates such a selection. However, good showings from multiple players against Costa Rica may have placed some doubt in his mind. In particular, Marcus Rashford made a strong case for inclusion with a rasping strike into the top corner from outside the box. Even aside from the goal, he looked by far the most positive player on the pitch – he was prepared to take up the ball and run at defenders, something which may be invaluable against the stubborn Tunisian defence. Similarly, Ruben Loftus-Cheek showcased his ability to drive the team forward. His powerful runs from the middle might be precisely what England need in this opening match, but he may struggle to get in from the start amidst competition from Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard.
The formation, however, does seem fairly settled. Gareth Southgate looks intent on setting up with a back three in Russia; this has clear benefits against some of the bigger opponents in that it lends itself to counter-attacking, but its relative success against both Nigeria and Costa Rica appear to show that it is equally workable in games where England are setting out to dominate. Much reliance is placed on the wing-backs – probably Trippier and Young, although strong pressure is being applied by both Danny Rose and Trent Alexander-Arnold. They are tasked with providing essentially all of the width, getting back where necessary while also serving as an outlet on the flank when going forward. The main man to aim at in the middle will be Harry Kane, but Southgate will hope that his side do not resort to simply swinging crosses in the direction of the Spurs frontman. The three in central midfield, most likely linked to Kane by Raheem Sterling operating in something like a number 10 role, are the pivotal part of attacking build-up play. There were some lovely passing sequences against Nigeria in particular, and if The Three Lions can establish similar interplay against the Tunisians then they should be able to emerge victorious. I back them to secure a 2-0 win in a relatively cagey affair.
This was the score the last time the two sides met, almost exactly twenty years ago. They were in the same group as one another in France 1998, but the result was overshadowed by the significant crowd trouble in the lead-up to the match. Tear gas had to be fired to try and disperse the hundreds of rival fans in pitched battles around the streets of Marseille. More than thirty people were injured, with one English fan requiring an operation following a slashed throat. Despite fears about potential hooliganism in Russia, it can be hoped that things have moved on to the point where the repeat of this fixture will not be marred by similarly unsavoury scenes; if England can emulate the result on the pitch, however, they will be satisfied. That said, given that Trent Alexander-Arnold was not even born at the time of the last encounter, it is unlikely that the players will be reading too much into it! The only other previous meeting between the two teams ended in a 1-1 draw in 1990, in which Steve Bull scored the goal for England.
In summary, this game may well prove a stiff test for England, but provided the team Southgate selects are at their best then they should have enough to come out on top. Positivity will be needed to get through a Tunisian side packed with resolve – Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek could offer this, and it will be interesting to see if Southgate opts to deploy them either from the start or off the bench. For Tunisia, much depends on their ability to hold firm in the face of sustained pressure; going forward, their hopes rest to a significant degree on the continued form of Anice Badri.