Ruthless England get the job done against Senegal

England 3 Senegal 0

Some fans wish England would be more fluid and bold. Imagine the goalscoring records that Gareth Southgate’s side could break if that happened. As it is, England’s cautious formations have produced 12 goals in four games, scored by eight different players – a measure of the variety of England’s attacking threats.

Marcus Rashford, who scored two in the previous game against Wales, first came on as a sub here, after England had dispatched the African champions in this second-round tie within an hour.

Job done so far – but in next Saturday’s quarter-final, world champions France will be classes above any team England have yet faced here.

At the huge Al Bayt stadium in the desert outside Doha, a group of Senegal fans danced and drummed behind one goal throughout, giving the game a rhythm it didn’t initially deserve.

England started poorly, with errant back passes from first Harry Maguire and then Bukayo Saka giving Senegal two good chances. Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford came to the rescue twice, rushing out to thwart Ismaïla Sarr, and later stopping Boulaye Dia’s shot. If England are that cheeky on Saturday, they probably won’t get away with it against French strikers Kylian Mbappé and Olivier Giroud.

England’s man of the tournament so far has arguably been 19-year-old Jude Bellingham from Borussia Dortmund, who has displaced Kalvin Phillips in the only clear change to the starting XI that made it to last year’s delayed Euro 2020 final. A remarkably versatile player, Bellingham started the tournament as a midfielder, then shone as a playmaker, and tonight he often operated as an outside left.

“I don’t think we could have predicted how quickly he would mature,” Southgate said afterwards. Bellingham’s runs and near-flawless passing exploited Senegal’s weakness down the right flank: their right-back, Youssouf Sabaly, is a reserve at Betis in Seville. In a delightful five-man move after 38 minutes, Bellingham surged down the wing and crossed low for Jordan Henderson, not a regular goalscorer, to tap in. In a strange goal celebration, Henderson and Bellingham butted heads.

Then Senegal’s defensive organization cracked. In the final seconds before half-time, Bellingham launched a counter-attack with a masterful run of defense and kept the ball cool until he could reach Phil Foden on the same left wing. Foden immediately crossed to Harry Kane, who fired home his first goal of this World Cup. Kane now has 52 for England – just one behind record holder Wayne Rooney – but is actually transforming from a goalscoring number 9 to a playmaking number 10. He was deservedly named man of the match.

Foden played in place of Raheem Sterling, who was unavailable after his family in England had their home burglarized. “He’s flying back to England,” Southgate said.

In the second half, Foden continued to trouble Sabaly, recording his second assist with a cross from the right which Saka flicked home. As usual, England completed a high proportion of their chances.

“Relentless,” Kane called it. “Our mistakes were paid for in cash,” agreed Senegal coach Alou Cissé.

The final half hour was a formality, with England using all five substitutes, until it was time for the fans’ favorite ‘Sweet Caroline’ to ring out across the desert. England have still never lost to an African team.

Harry Kane, left, scores England's second goal against Senegal

Harry Kane scores England’s second goal against Senegal © AP

Southgate knows that World Cups are won more by closed defenses than stunning forward lines and he will be relieved that England barely allowed Senegal another sniff at goal after their shaky defensive start. It was England’s third straight clean sheet. Their only goals conceded here in Qatar have been two late goals against Iran after that game was already won long ago.

Getting rid of middle teams in tournaments has become routine for Southgate’s side – something that cannot be said of any other English side in recent times. From 1968 to 2016, England won just six knockout matches in major tournaments. Since 2018, Southgate’s men have won a further six.

But they have consistently been outplayed by top-class, possession-hungry opponents in crucial games: by Belgium and Croatia at the last World Cup, and by Italy in the Euro 2020 final.

Against France, their task will be to keep as much possession as possible, passing from the back, rather than giving the French the ball all the time and being pushed back into their own penalty area, as happened in the previous defeats.

Foden and Rashford both have reason to hope they will start against France. Sterling has been one of Southgate’s stalwarts since taking over in 2016, and the manager rarely switches sides. But even if the winger was available on Saturday, he would be lucky to get his place back. England will likely switch from four at the back against Senegal to five against the French, with three centre-backs and two full-backs to try to counter Mbappé’s pace and brilliance. But the man from Bondy leads the World Cup scoring charts with five goals in four games.

This England generation is an experienced side at the top of their cycle. It won’t have a better chance of winning a World Cup and France rather than Senegal will be the benchmark for whether it’s up to it. Southgate rightly called it “the biggest test we can face”.

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