It turns out if you stick Harry Kane in the box for corners, he is pretty handy at sticking them in. Roy Hodgson missed a trick.
The striker did not get the hat-trick he craved to match Cristiano Ronaldo, but his two goals both came from corners and the last, headed over the line in second-half stoppage time, dragged England through a lacklustre World Cup opener against Tunisia by the scruff of their neck.
Two years ago, in England’s disastrous Euros in France, Hodgson persisted with Kane taking corners, much to the bemusement of virtually everyone else bar England’s manager; the fans, the media, England’s players. Last night, he was where your striker should be, bustling in the box, a few yards from goal, putting England ahead from one, 11 minutes in. Ashley Young – one of those players out on the wing who can cross well – delivered instead, and John Stones met it with a ferocious header. Though Tunisia goalkeeper Mouez Hassen kept it out, Kane was there to tap in a natural goalscorer’s goal.
The fervour, the hope, the expectation, the captain opening the scoring early on, the half an hour of playing impressive football; it was almost all undone when Tunisia levelled with a second-half penalty and the game was dismally drifting toward a draw. But what else are captains for?
England fans had been promised a young, fearless, attacking unit and manager Gareth Southgate was true to his word: 248 caps between them – their lowest total at an international tournament since June 1962 when 246 caps took on Bulgaria – and 25 goals apiece. Plus an average age of 25.6.
For a while, it worked, which came almost as much as a surprise to England’s players as it did everyone else. It was as though the last player on the end of a four or five-pass move, or an incisive ball into the box, was so surprised by the speed of quality and England’s play that he was not expecting the final ball to fall into his path, so shot wide.
After an England move broke down on three minutes, Raheem Sterling nipped in to poke the ball from a Tunisian defender’s foot, directing it to Jesse Lingard, whose side-footed shot went down the middle, thus hitting Hassen’s legs. A minute later, Sterling missed an open goal; Jordan Henderson released Dele Alli, who snuck in Lingard and he played a low ball in front of goal, but the Manchester City forward shanked wide.
Even after Kane scored, Young cut back on the left and picked out Lingard with a glorious chipped cross, but the Manchester United man, completely free, did not connect properly.
For about half an hour it felt as though England were going to win with goals to spare. Then they started defending, and things looked shaky. Eventually, Kyle Walker put an arm across Fakhreddine Ben Youssef when a cross swung in and a penalty was awarded, which Ferjani Sassi scored; the first spot kick England have conceded at a World Cup, discarding shoot-outs, since Gabriel Batistuta for Argentina in France ’98.
Was it a harsh decision? Walker exerted no more pressure than one might while leaning against a bar in a pub, yet Youssef went down and held his face as though he had just had a pint thrown in it.
Kane should surely have had two penalties – wrestled to the ground either side of half-time – which begged the question: where was the VAR? Southgate would be justified in wondering if there is a glitch in the system which made Kane invisible to the cameras whenever England were awarded a corner. It all seemed a bit unjust, given the penalty Tunisia had been awarded.
If this performance is anything to go by, Southgate must have worked on absolutely everything in England’s training sessions, apart from finishing. It did not help that he started a goal-shy line-up; Kane the leading scorer with 13, before he notched another two on the night, the left-wing-back Young behind him with seven, Alli and Sterling two each and Lingard one. That was it. Bar Kane, they did not add to those meagre tallies.
It makes sense that a tall, muscular forward who is decent at the heading the ball is not on corners. It would be no bad thing for England if he never took one again.