Why Southgate must unleash Loftus-Cheek against Panama

Chelsea youngster deserves start after impressive Tunisia cameo
James Piercy  |  22nd June 2018

Just as a negative result would have led to a cavalcade of criticism towards Gareth Southgate’s squad, the law of England at major tournaments dictates a victory leads to the positives being overstated.

This was as exciting an England game at a World Cup since the defeat to Argentina in 1998, owing to the Three Lions’ early press, several defensive brain-fades and purpose being rewarded in injury time through Harry Kane’s winner.

It was a young team dragging a win from the jaws of a disappointing draw, against a Tunisia side who were resolute and probably more streetwise than their celebrated counterparts.

As Kyle Walker emphasised post-match, while the manner of the triumph was worth celebrating not everything about the performance necessarily was and, after all, three points is just three points. The devil will always be in the detail

To highlight the specific concerns for Southgate – outside of his back three continuing to lurch from assured to a state of mild panic – was England’s inability to put away their early chances, a lack of creativity in the middle once Tunisia slowed the tempo, no genuine left-footed player, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli’s fading influence and Raheem Sterling’s clumsy performance – which looks set to result in the axe for Sunday’s clash against Panama.

Such an inexperienced and internationally green group of players are going to be inconsistent. That manifested itself across the course of the 90 minutes in Volgograd, let alone over an entire tournament, so patience is required.

You can back England to be drawing at half time and winning by full time at 12/5 with FansBet

This England team are sure to provide plenty of bad as well the good. It’s what should continue to place them among the most fun teams to watch at this World Cup.

Focus now turns to Sunday and a date with Panama which, based on their earlier clash with Belgium, should,  the very least, give England the opportunity to address their lack of killer instinct in front of goal.

Belgium were far from exceptional – poor and pedestrian at times in fact – in beating the Central Americans 3-0 but still mustered 15 attempts at goal, six on target, and dominated the minnows with 61.9 per cent possession, out-passing them 568-354.

An England team buoyed by Monday night’s drama should be demanding even more.

But with three points in the bag, and the anticipated quality of the opposition they will face at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, this match gives Southgate probably his final chance to properly experiment in this tournament.

After Panama comes Belgium and the likelihood of a Group G decider in Kaliningrad – although Tunisia’s tactical nous could present the Red Devils with problems – and by that stage Southgate’s best XI and system will need to be set in stone.

His starting team for Tunisia had been set for a long time, with only injury or Gary Cahill’s display against Nigeria complicating matters. He may well choose to field the same XI against Panama and it would be difficult to argue against.

It would give the below-par Sterling a chance to build his confidence, help enhance Lingard’s composure in front of goal and allow Ashley Young to work on taking defenders on the outside and crossing with his left foot (please, Ashley).

Equally, a slight tweak in personnel wouldn’t be unfair on any of the 11 who started on Volgograd. Particularly, given the impact of Marcus Rashford and, most notably, Ruben Loftus-Cheek off the bench.

By the time Loftus-Cheek emerged onto the pitch after 79 minutes, England’s play had become glacial. Tunisia’s defensive block was secured in front of the 18-yard box and crosses were defended, passes intercepted and pockets picked.

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Rashford’s pace helped stretch that defence and create extra gaps. But it was Loftus-Cheek who provided the real purpose and penetration. Replacing Alli, whose influence had waned as a result of a knock, Loftus-Cheek injected physicality into the middle of the park, which was required given Tunisia’s choice of tactics, as well as an attacking instinct.

Although he appeared to occupy Alli’s central role, in reality he was much deeper and when he received possession he often drifted to the right, stretching the pitch and giving more space in the middle while adding to the threat down the channel in which Kieran Trippier had had success.

There were three significant breaks. The first on 82 minutes in which he interchanged with Rashford, dribbled toward the corner flag and saw an under-hit cross cleared at the near post.

The second then occurred on 87 minutes when he was fed down the right-hand channel and – while the temptation might have been to cross first time – took a touch and picked out Rashford only for the forward to dummy and leave it for Lingard who was tackled.

A minute later he got tight to Tunisia’s Saber Khalifa on receiving Trippier’s pass, rolled the substitute and sprinted into the space behind only to be denied by a covering defender.

He also won the corner which led to Kane’s winner, pressing Mohamed Ben Amor into putting the ball out having lost possession.

Four key pieces of play which changed the tempo for England and which should give Southgate enough evidence to consider him for Panama.

The beauty of his central attacking midfield trio is they can play as the two No.8s in front of the anchorman – presently Jordan Henderson – or one could theoretically replace Sterling as Kane’s partner. It’s something Alli has done at club level while Lingard has the attacking traits and Loftus-Cheek the technique and presence.

Based on performance-levels on Monday night, Alli could play off Kane with Lingard and Loftus-Cheek behind him. Or, if the Tottenham player needs a rest, Sterling continues alongside his captain with the latter duo in support.

There is no incorrect answer as each possibility has its own merits.

At this stage, Loftus-Cheek’s role may be viewed as an impact substitute to add something different in the final period of games. And Alli, Lingard and Sterling have the big-match experience and ability to warrant their place in the pecking order above him.

Back England to beat Panama 3-0 on Sunday at 5/1 with FansBet

But a start against Panama would give Loftus-Cheek the chance to build his own experience and allow Southgate to see more of what he can achieve in a starting role. Alli and Lingard are young players but don’t have the same unanswered questions.

Even if he then instantly returns to the bench against Belgium, plenty should have been learned and can only improve the squad overall.

Panama, based on Belgium’s win, increasingly looks like a free hit. Playing Loftus-Cheek would be a bold swing but one that could lead to a home run later in the tournament.

By James Piercy – follow James and the rest of the team at Football Whispers on Twitter @FB_Whispers

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