The 2018 World Cup: Result & Performance
There are two sides to what makes up a satisfying performance by one’s football team: result and performance. On the whole, the vast majority of us will put up with a little degradation of one in order to enhance the other to some degree. The result is important, of course. Winning – or at least the hope of winning, no matter how remote that may feel at times – is why we’re here in the first place. There are few who really, genuinely don’t care at all whether our team wins or not. But the performance is also important. If we are going to win, then we’d like to do it in style, please. We’d like to feel as though our team warranted the statistics that will be flashed on the screens after the match.
As such, how were England’s result and performance last night? Well, the result can’t really be argued with. If you’re going to win a match by a one goal margin, it doesn’t really matter whether the all-important goal comes in the first minute or in the last. What matters is that you score it. And England managed that last night. It’s worth bearing in mind that many of the teams that have been built up to be the giants of this tournament – Brazil, Germany, Spain, Argentina – all failed to win their opening match of the tournament. England did not fail in this respect, and they should be pleased at a job well done.
Then there’s the small matter of the performance itself. At half-time last night, I tweeted that England had probably put in the best forty-five minutes of football of any team so far during this tournament, and this wasn’t something that I said through a mist of excited hubris. The high line was working, pushing Tunisia back and forcing chance after chance. The passing and movement were outstanding, and the pressure so relentless that goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was a spectator for virtually the whole half. That intensity dropped off during the second half, whether through fear of failure or the altogether more mundane effects of tiredness and heat, but they did keep going and thoroughly warranted the goal when it came, even if it did come very late indeed. Few would argue that England didn’t “deserve” – to the extent to which that particular word has any currency whatsoever in football – their win.
And yet, and yet. England had slices of good fortune and slices of bad. They made mistakes, and they were punished when they did. There was no question that Kyle Walker’s impersonation of a wacky waving arms inflatable tube man as a relatively harmless cross sailed over the penalty area during the first half, which led to the penalty kick that brought Tunisia back into a match that they at that stage frankly at that stage had no right to be in, was worthy of that particular award. This doesn’t mean, however, that the refereeing wasn’t bad and, more troublingly, was inexplicably so.
The manhandling that was going on at more or less every set piece was, we might have felt, the sort of situation that VAR was designed to curtail, but on two occasions during the first half Harry Kane was quite clearly hauled to the ground and on neither occasion was what felt like a flagrant breaching of the laws of the game called out, not only by the referee but also apparently by the other officials as well. The Football Association could arguably do worse than contact the IFAB, who come up with the laws of the game in the first place, with a recording of these incidents, to politely try to establish what, exactly, the laws regarding this sort of foul are, because it’s pretty clear that are tens, possibly hundreds, of millions of people who are interpreting them incorrectly at present.
Somewhat more concerning from an England perspective was the players’ collective failure to adjust to the different circumstances once they became apparent. The ways in which the rules were being interpreted were quite clearly different to what the players are used in the Premier League, but even after this became apparent they continued to make the same mistakes, over and over again. Ashley Young kept on conceding fouls which allowed Tunisia to take possession, kill whatever attempts there had been to build up a tempo, and waste a little time. Arms kept going up with increasingly plaintive pleas for a penalty kick or a free-kick to be given, with little response from the officials. England will have to learn that different tournaments can have different interpretations of the laws of the game, and they will need to learn quickly to adjust to this.
Tunisia, for their part, will be naturally disappointed at having got past the ninety minute mark before conceding the parity for which they’d fought tooth and nail. They’d been obdurate, certainly cynical at times, and had worn England’s confidence down to a point at which there were points at which their opponents were starting to resemble previous England teams that had underwhelmed at recent tournaments. But when push came to shove, they could have little argument with the result. They’d been fortunate to win their penalty – whether this fortune came from Kyle Walker’s ill thought-out defending technique or the referee’s whistle might be considered a semantic point, in this respect – and they might have conceded more than one of their own. They offered little as an attacking threat, and had they been playing anyone bar international football’s pantomime villains they would have received considerably shorter shrift on social media for their performance. But they are strong and hard-working, and they’ll likely give Belgium a game in their next match.
Football teams seldom arrived fully formed in tournaments. The nature of international football and its lack of integration with club football doesn’t really allow for anything else. England, therefore, need the space to grow into this tournament and their next opponents certainly afford them the opportunity to do this. Panama were poor against Belgium yesterday afternoon, coming close to tying with Saudi Arabia as the weakest team we’ve seen so far, and England should have enough in the tank with room to spare to get the result that they need to ensure that they go into their final group match against Belgium with qualification for the last sixteen already in the bag.
Of course this is England, so standard “anything might happen” qualifiers apply, but Belgium’s three-nil win yesterday afternoon taught us very little about Roberto Martinez’s team. There was also little in Panama’s performance to suggest that they will be chasing much bar sitting deep and hoping for a quick hit on the break at best, and damage limitation at worst, whilst the extent to which they seemed to tire over the course of the last twenty minutes should also fill Gareth Southgate with confidence that, even in the event that his team huffs and puffs in front of goal, they should be able to find a route through with a little persistence. As ever, an England performance has raised as many questions as it has answered, but at least the questions being asked this morning are broadly positive, when considered with a little perspective. Of course, one of England’s biggest problems is that every single thing that they do is subject to “too much fucking perspective.”
The last twenty-four hours has certainly been instructive in terms of the team’s relationship with the public. Prior to the start of the tournament, the general feeling was that England didn’t have a chance of winning the competition, and that it was probably enough to have a likeable team that plays reasonably attractive football. Once the whistle blew to start last night’s match, however, much of that seemed to go out of the window and old expectations started to rear their heads again. Nothing has really changed over the last twenty-four hours or so. At least they got the win, but that won’t stop the inevitable barrage of over-exaggerated nature of just about any reaction to a football match featuring the England team.
One of the more curious aspects of watching a major football tournament these days is the rush to declare where it fits in the canon of great previous tournaments. It’s impossible to say at the moment, of course, but the truth of the matter is that there will always be good games, mediocre games, and bad games. The afternoon match between Sweden and South Korea fell quite squarely into the latter of these three categories. A second half, VAR-assisted penalty kick from Andreas Granqvist won the game from Sweden, but otherwise there wasn’t a great deal to report from Nizhny Novgorod other than a fairly inspired performance from the Korean reserve goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo – reportedly brought in for this game because he’s taller than their first choice, Kim Seung-gyu – and perhaps a lament that South Korea never really kicked on from their success in reaching the semi-finals of the 2002 tournament.
Perhaps the biggest winners from this game will have been Germany, who will likely be feeling considerably more zen-like about their own chances of getting through their group despite having lost their opening match to Mexico after having seen the tepid state of the two teams that they have to play in their remaining group matches. It is difficult to imagine that they will make the same mistakes against Sweden as South Korea that they made in their opening match, and they’re in good company when we consider the other teams that have failed to win their opening matches as well.