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2 Jun 2018

England blow hot and cold against Nigeria

England began their preparations for this summer's World Cup with a 2-1 home victory over Nigeria.

Gary Cahill and Harry Kane scored the goals for England, but who did you feel excelled for Gareth Southgate's team? And which of Nigeria's players stood out?


The encouraging news for England is that Harry Kane is looking sharp, Raheem Sterling seems remarkably unaffected by all the recent scrutiny and, if Gareth Southgate’s team can play in the World Cup as they did here during the opening 45 minutes, perhaps it is not too outlandish to think they can make a decent impression in Russia, after all.

Unfortunately that tells only part of the story and, with England, there always seems to be a cloud attached to every silver lining. Two-nil ahead at the break, Southgate’s team looked on course to win with ease. As it was, the England manager must have been startled by their deterioration after the break when Nigeria, such obliging opponents throughout the opening 45 minutes, pulled one back through Alex Iwobi and could conceivably have saved themselves.

That period was a stark reminder that England will be flying out to Russia as a work in progress. Overall the good outweighed the bad but it was a close-run thing at times and Southgate must wonder why his players lost their momentum after such an impressive first-half performance, featuring goals from Gary Cahill and Kane and enough bright, attacking football to create the firm impression that Southgate’s plans are slowly coming together.

Might this be the team that starts against Tunisia in Volgograd on 18 June? Southgate had made it clear the time for experimentation was over and England’s formation for Russia will almost certainly be this 3-3-2-2 system with Sterling operating in a central attacking position alongside Kane.

Southgate, in other words, has chosen not to employ orthodox wingers. That, however, is not such a problem when Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young can provide extra width as attacking full-backs. Dele Alli was chosen ahead of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, most probably because of the Tottenham player’s understanding with Kane, and Jesse Lingard’s selection was another sign that Southgate wants two attacking midfielders who will make it their business to enter the opposition penalty area.

Quietly, and increasingly convincingly, Southgate has put in place an attacking system with a heavy emphasis on breaking forward at speed. Trippier demonstrated his ability to deliver pinpoint crosses with the seventh-minute corner for Cahill’s headed goal and, suddenly, the decision to use Kyle Walker as one of England’s three centre-halves no longer seems so questionable. Walker has had to curtail his driving runs from defence but Trippier, though not quite so jet-heeled, is the more accomplished crosser of the ball.

Here, too, was evidence that Southgate’s preferred system allows Sterling to exert more of an influence than if he was playing on the wing. Southgate had admitted in one interview that he gave serious consideration to dropping Sterling from his starting lineup because the Manchester City player reported a day late for training.

Southgate decided against it because he did not want to add to the blizzard of publicity surrounding Sterlingover the last week and the player looked determined to justify that decision. Sterling played as though he did not have a care in the world – a constant menace to the Nigerian defence with his speed, direct running and ability to create space for others.

Unfortunately for Sterling, he is going through one of those periods in which he seems to have a magnetic attraction to controversy and, as Southgate has acknowledged, not all the criticism is unjustified. This one came in the form of a penalty-box dive seven minutes into the second half and, justifiably, he was shown a yellow card for his troubles.

Sterling’s intention was to make it look as though the Nigeria goalkeeper, Francis Uzoho, had brought him down when, in reality, it was the England player trying to initiate the contact. It was poor on Sterling’s part and the Italian referee, Marco Guida, was wise not to fall into the trap.

Perhaps that moment summed up England’s nervousness at the start of the second half. By half-time, Southgate must have been thrilled by the slick way his team were moving the ball and Nigeria were so overwhelmed during that period that their manager, Gernot Rohr, brought on four substitutes straight after the interval.

England looked entirely comfortable but that changed two minutes after the restart when Odion Ighalo, the former Watford striker, cracked a shot against the post and Iwobi fired in the rebound. England had plenty of defenders in close proximity. None could get to the ball ahead of Iwobi and suddenly the boisterous hordes of Nigerian fans behind that goal turned up the volume.

Kane had doubled England’s lead in the 39th minute from Sterling’s pass, firing a right-footed shot that went through the legs of the centre-half William Troost-Ekong on the way. In the second half, however, England’s front two were never so threatening. Nigeria had chances to equalise and the game drifted rather aimlessly to its conclusion.

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