While the high expectations that usually follow England into a World Cup are nowhere to be found in Russia, there is still a sense the Three Lions owe their supporters something more following their poor showings from the last two tournaments as they open Group G play Monday in Volgograd.
England is making its sixth consecutive World Cup appearance since missing out in 1994, but it has been on a down cycle for most of this decade and has not been beyond the quarterfinals of a tournament since reach the semis of the 1996 European Championship as host. After finishing last in Group D in Brazil in which took one point in matches against Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica, the Three Lions were humbled two years later in France when upstart Iceland beat them 2-1 in the round of 16 in the Euros.
Manager Gareth Southgate, who replaced Sam Allardyce following his controversial sacking in 2016, has overhauled much of the squad in favor of a younger look. Of his expected starting XI, only Raheem Sterling has previous World Cup experience, and only Gary Cahill has more than 50 caps.
The blood and thunder approach prevalent in the Premier League has given way to the evolution of a three-man back and quick passing, a nod to the revolution Pep Guardiola brought to Manchester City that resulted in the first 100-point season in top-flight English football this past term.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
As is usually the case, the Three Lions cruised through qualifying, finishing eight points clear of Slovakia and Scotland in Group F as they did not lose a match and conceded just three times. Harry Kane led the way with five goals but England also had 12 different players bag at least one through the qualifying process.
England has never made back-to-back group play exits in its World Cup history but the country that invented football has not progressed beyond the quarterfinals since its fourth-place finish in 1990. The Three Lions won their only World Cup in 1966 on home soil and last reached the quarterfinals in 2006.
Tunisia is making its fifth World Cup appearance and first since 2006. The Eagles defeated Mauritania in a two-legged playoff to reach the final round and narrowly held off the Democratic Republic of Congo, finishing one point ahead after completing group play with a scoreless draw versus Libya.
Tunisia has just one World Cup victory to its credit, a 3-1 victory over Mexico in its maiden match in 1978. Tunisia has gone 0-4-7 since that victory, getting outscored 16-5 in that run.
One of those losses was a 2-0 defeat to England in France in 1998, a match in which Southgate started at center back for the Three Lions.
England’s formation will be a hybrid between a 3-3-2-2 and a 3-1-4-2 depending on how much license Southgate gives Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier to bomb forward. Jordan Henderson will serve as a defensive midfielder in front of the back three, with John Stones expected to use his passing skills to push forward when the opportunity presents itself.
Up front, Spurs teammates Kane and Dele Alli will be supported by Sterling and Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard. Alli, Sterling and Lingard all have speed to burn and could play underneath Kane, who can be a target forward as well as play the ball at his feet.
The lack of a seasoned veteran beyond Cahill is a concern. Pickford and fellow keepers Jack Butland and Nick Pope have a combined 12 caps among them, and starting defender Harry Maguire has made just five international appearances. Reserve Denny Welbeck is the most capped player up front with 39 appearances.
Tunisia will use a 4-2-3-1 formation in which central defenders Syam Ben Youssef and Yassine Meriah will be pivotal in reducing England’s scoring opportunities. Like England, there is a glaring lack of international experience throughout Tunisia’s roster, with defensive midfielders Saif-Eddine Kahoui and Ellyes Skhiri having four caps between them.
Up front, the Eagles of Carthage will ask much of Wahbi Kahzri to hold up play and harry England’s back line. He has 12 goals in 35 appearances for his country and is coming off a solid season on loan in Rennes, where he had nine goals for the French side.
Goalkeeper and talisman Aymen Mathlouthi has made 69 international appearances and is the only Tunisian player with more than a half-century worth of caps.
PLAYER TO WATCH
England – Harry Kane (F)
Having been given the captain’s armband for the World Cup, there will be pressure on Kane to produce, especially after a 30-goal season for Tottenham. His goal-scoring pace down the stretch slowed due to injury, but the 24-year-old did score against Nigeria in one of England’s last friendlies before arriving in Russia.
Tunisia – Ellyes Skhiri (MF)
Despite having just two caps to his credit, Skhiri is in the middle of everything for the Eagles of Carthage and will be tasked with neutralizing Sterling through the middle while giving his team time to take shape defensively. The French-born Skhiri has seven goals for Montpellier but is better known as a box-to-box player working in tandem and will have to give service to Naim Sliti, the team’s primary offensive option in place of the injured Youssef Msakni.
RUMORED TO MOVE
Alli is expected to be partnered with Kane for the long haul at Tottenham as he is rumored to be nearing a contract extension. Kane is going to stick around in North London through 2024 after signing an extension earlier this month. Backup keeper Butland may be the most likely to move, with Premier League teams interested in prying him from Stoke City.
Per Ladbrokes, England is a heavy 4-9 favorite, while Tunisia checks in as a decided 8-1 underdog. There are also long odds for a draw at 3-1. For first goal-scorers, Kane is the front-runner at 11-5 odds, but Jamie Vardy is a surprising second at 13-5 as oddsmakers expect England to need time to break down Tunisia.
Sterling is getting 7-2 odds to give the Three Lions a 1-0 lead, and Alli is 4-1. On the Tunisian side, Khazri leads a trio of players who would return 10-1 odds for that shock scoreline.
For all the reinvention Southgate has done with the England squad since its disastrous exit in France two years ago, the most important thing he has probably done is temper expectations for this squad with its supporters. He has plenty to work with going forward and has taken pains to get his players to play free, but there is still skepticism the Three Lions will bottle again at a major tournament setting.
When looking at the friendlies dating back to November, it is clear England is not an elite squad. There were draws against Germany and Brazil last November, a draw with an unfancied Italy squad at home and a win over the Netherlands. Its two send-off victories came against World Cup opponents, but both Costa Rica and Nigeria also face low expectations and lost their opening matches.
If England start fast and score early, it will do wonders for its confidence. The longer the match goes without a goal, the more dug in Tunisia will become and the job will become that much tougher. The Eagles of Carthage should not be taken lightly, they are Africa’s highest-ranked team in the latest FIFA rankings at No. 21 and were as high as 14th.
They more than held their own against teams above their punching weight, drawing Portugal, beating Iran and held Spain without a goal for 83 minutes in their final tune-up before suffering a 1-0 loss. The issue for Tunisia will be where its offense originates. Sliti may be its best threat going forward, but if Nabil Maaoul has his team sit deep in defense, he may be starved of service.
While England are the most likely second choice to Belgium to emerge from Group G, Tunisia thinks it can be that side as well since it will be favored against World Cup newcomer Panama. It may take a while, but the Three Lions should get their first World Cup victory since 2010 with a well-earned 1-0 victory.
England will face Panama in its second group game Sunday in Nizhny Novogorod, while Tunisia will square off with Belgium in Moscow a day earlier.