Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard impress for mature England vs. woeful Panama
NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia -- Three thoughts on England's 6-1 win vs. Panama in Group G at the World Cup.
1. England show maturity and discipline
You can only beat what is in front of you, and what was in front of England was not much. But in a game that turned chippy and nasty on several occasions in the first half, Gareth Southgate's crew maintained their discipline and simply focused on executing.
Sure, it's a whole heck of a lot easier when the opposition's approach to set pieces seemingly involves no marking (as seen on John Stones' opener), consternation at a fairly basic routine (the give-and-go that resulted in Stones' second) and dragging down the nearest opponent to give up a penalty (as was the case with what led to Kane's two spot kicks).
But England played with confidence and humility at once, and that's not something we've seen too often in past World Cups. We have seen them be humble and insecure and we have seen confidence that spilled over into arrogance. Here, the balance looked right, and that is a credit to the manager and the players.
2. Lingard makes another positive impact
Jesse Lingard scored a peach of a goal, but more than that, he is quickly becoming one of the key men in Southgate's setup. We call it a 3-5-2, but it's really a 3-1-5-1 in possession: Full-backs Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young push right up, Jordan Henderson drops deeper and Raheem Sterling, with license to roam, often retreats to find pockets of space.
In that context, having a runner with the right sense of timing to get forward is essential, and particularly with Dele Alli replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek -- a fine player, but one with a different skill set -- Lingard is invaluable. His ability to read the movements of those around him is key to both creating space for Sterling, offering an attacking outlet and maintaining the link to Kane up front.
His awareness and unselfishness may well be a function of the fact that he probably has not been the best player on whatever team he has played on since his early teens, and obviously, at Manchester United he has to defer to the superstars around him. Whatever the case, he showed against Panama that he might be irreplaceable in Southgate's XI.
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3. Woeful Panama have themselves to blame
A colleague put it best in a tweet. He said he wanted to like Panama, but they are like the guy you don't invite back to your weekly five-a-side game, at least the version we saw in the first half. You appreciate that some level of chippiness, intimidation and "dark arts" is part of the game, but they took it to a new high (or low) before the break.
Some of it might have brought a smile -- such as when, after the second England goal, they tried to kick off while their opponents were still celebrating in the corner -- but a lot of it was just unpleasant. What's more, with VAR watching, it was downright foolish to expect to get away with it.
Equally silly seemed to be coach Hernan Gomez's set-up, with both lines compressed in a medium block, which gave England's central defenders all the time in the world to pick passes. John Stones and Harry Maguire may not be budding Franz Beckenbauers, but anybody who has watched them even a little bit will know they can hit an accurate ball if given time; with 37-year-old Blas Perez up front, they had plenty.
Panama's fans deserved better, and they got it in the second half. England made substitutions and, as the pace dropped, Panama attacked and actually created chances. One of them was converted by another 37-year-old, Felipe Baloy, who became the third-oldest player to score at a World Cup.
You could only be happy for him and the joy on his face when he climbed into the stands to celebrate with supporters after the final whistle. Shame about the first 45 minutes, though.