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i amGareth Southgate brought on Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish in the 71st minute of England’s win over Iran. They are not traditional substitutes, they are the manager’s finishers – players brought in to see the match up and up the tempo. They made a difference and can do so once more against the United States on Friday.
Greg Berhalter’s side struggled to contain Wales in the second half as their stamina levels dropped and a tired challenge from Walker Zimmermann on Gareth Bale resulted in a late penalty. If the USA run out of steam in the same way, they could face a tougher final quarter against the freshness of England’s bench.
The starters are there to deliver the gameplan and the substitutes come in to up the tempo by 15-20% and get the job done – and Southgate has plenty of options. The role of finishers is important in the modern game, maximizing everything available to a head coach. They brought intensity and scored a lot of goals in England’s case. Not many countries can call on someone of Foden’s level off the bench and that is a major strength of England.
Had Southgate been offered a 6-2 win over Iran, he would have taken it. I know I will. There were plenty of positives but he was concerned about conceding two goals because tournament football is about clean sheets and he will ask his players not to close in the same way on Friday. They were two spots in an impressive performance that laid down a marker in dominant fashion.
Southgate picked an experienced team and it shined. It’s unlikely he’ll change much, fitness permitting. I would have chosen Foden over Bukayo Saka, but Southgate justified his selection. The team countered well, won the ball back quickly. That said, I can see a case for Foden against the US. He is a technician who can take several touches in tight spaces and against the intensity of the USA press which can be useful in finding the gaps they leave behind.
Judd Bellingham’s release in the middle of the pitch was great to witness. He was allowed to express himself, move forward and be whatever he wanted to be. As England progress, Bellingham’s role may become more defensive, but he certainly made the most of his chances of being active against Iran, and that could do the same for the United States.
Everyone knew how Carlos Queiroz’s team would play against England: they were compact and hard to beat. England had to earn the right to break them down and it took until the 35th minute for Bellingham to head the opener. You could see the plan: Bellingham would punch a pass through the line to put England on the front foot; Raheem Sterling, Saka and Mason Mount all got good spots; And Kieran Trippier and Luke Shaw offer breadth.
At this level it is not enough to dominate possession of the final third. Teams need to move from left to right and work by creating spaces. Then, as the game progresses, it is possible to expand them in other ways.
When the game expands, England have plenty of options to utilize space at the back. A lack of pace at USA centre-back, something Wales tried to target, albeit unsuccessfully. I understand why Rob Page went with Bale and Daniel James as Tim Ream and Zimmerman are not the fastest but the ball rarely went to them in the first half as the England team lacks pace due to USA pressure and they will aim to use it to threaten.
USA looked sensitive at set pieces against Wales; Kiefer Moore should have scored from a corner and Matt Turner was in trouble from a corner. Set pieces were England’s strength against Iran. Harry Maguire should have been awarded a penalty after being wrestled to the ground and has since been awarded a soft spot-kick. One of the reasons why I picked him in my team for this opener. A lot of people questioned the decision to pick him but my argument is that 30% of the goals come from set pieces – that’s a huge weapon.
When Manchester United signed Maguire his aerial duel was really good. He is always a threat in attack and is incredibly important in defending set pieces. England look a threat and a physical team in the penalty area, so that’s something they should capitalize on.
People should not underestimate how difficult the first game of a major tournament is. One of the favorites Argentina lost to Saudi Arabia. There was pressure on them due to high expectations of returning home but they could not do the job in the face of inferior opposition. England deserve a lot of credit for what they did against a team that wanted to make things incredibly difficult. Now they have to back it up.
Phil Foden can exploit USA’s gap but England’s bench provides a vital edge
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