When we consider Hoddle’s previous selections throughout the qualification campaign and the form of the players leading into the tournament, this is arguably England’s strongest 11 with one glaring omission. The major talking point in the lead up to this game was the exclusion of David Beckham, who by this stage was a regular for club and country. It left fans and pundits perplexed, however we’ve since found out that Hoddle cited a “Lack of focus” from Beckham. Hoddle felt Beckham’s very public relationship with Spice Girls singer Victoria Adams was affecting his training performance, and with that he was replaced by Darren Anderton. While still a fine footballer in his own right Anderton’s last England performance, the summer friendlies in May 98 notwithstanding, came back in Euro 96 under Terry Venables.
England Starting Line Up
Tunisia Starting Line Up
Tunisia were entering only their second ever World Cup, the last time coming back in 1978. In January of 1998 Tunisia would advance as group winners from their section at the African Nations Cup, however would exit at the next stage after a loss on penalties to Burkino Faso. This was an experienced squad at international level however, with almost two thirds of the squad recording over 30 caps. The star of this team was striker Adel Sellimi who helped fire FC Nantes to a 3rd place finish in Ligue 1. This team also features a 21 year old Hatem Trabelsi, who would later move to Ajax & Manchester City.
First Half Analysis
Build Up Play
England would look to spread their back three the width of the 18 yard box, allowing Campbell, Adams and Southgate the ability to pass into midfield but also carry the ball forward should their be space to do so. Anderton and Le Saux, England’s wingbacks, were positioned in line with the central midfielders and stretched the width of the field by standing on the touch lines. In theory this opens up the central channels of Batty, Scholes and Ince to get on the all and initiate build up patterns. When England were at their best, they broke Tunisia’s forward press with quick forward passes from the center backs to either Batty or Ince in behind the first line of pressure, allowing them to turn and advance the ball into the strikers or Scholes. Where England struggled during build up is when Scholes, Sheringham or Shearer would drop too deep, thus receiving the ball in front of a Tunisia side dropping back to collect their 5-3-2 defensive shape and only leaving wide or backwards passes as the options to keep the ball.
While on the surface Tunisia’s shape matched that of England, the North African’s would line up with a sweeper at the back (Badra) and the remaining 8 outfield players setting up in a linear 4-3-2 in front of him. From a strategy perspective they must have scouted a weakness on England’s right side, as there was significant traffic on that side throughout the first half. Tunisia’s midfield had a level of technical ability that allowed them to use intricate combinations, pulling England players out of position to create free runs from Clayton (LWB) or Chihi (LCM) both of whom made attacking movements behind Anderton on their left flank. Adel Sellimi was positioned as a striker but would also move off the high line to give Tunisia a further option in buildup.
Where England struggled to cope with Tunisia’s attack play lay in finding the balance between defending as a unit and defending as an individual. Defending in a 3-5-2 places a lot of onus on the defender pressing the ball, as there is no natural coverage option between the defensive and midfield line. What made matters worse was that England had to defend man for man in midfield, therefore should any of those players miss-time a challenge it would require Southgate or Campbell to leave the back line and cause a 2v2 at the back.
Counter Attack Play
With both teams using a possession based approach as a default, this therefore placed a greater demand on each sides defensive structure. Not only to prevent the opponent from creating chances, but to also prepare themselves for exploiting the opponents’ weaknesses via a counterattack.
Should England win the ball deep in their own half we’d see Batty and Ince quickly spray the ball wide to Anderton or Le Saux, who in turn clipped a ball down the flank to either Shearer or Sheringham to hold up and then create a crossing opportunity. With the strikers pulling wide this therefore allowed Scholes to get into the box as a pseudo third attacker. Alternatively, we also saw penetrative forward movements from England. Scholes was very effective in carrying the ball forward, as was the midfield three in passing forward into Shearer or Sheringham, who after pinning their opponent, would slip the ball wide into forward running Le Saux and Anderton to deliver balls into the box as from within the final third.
Tunisia had less of the ball in the first half and due to England’s aggressive pressing when possession turned they weren’t able to fashion many counter attacks either. Instead they favored remaining defensively solid for much of the opening 45, however they did offer a threat on the counter after England’s set pieces. As we’ll see next, England used set plays well during the game and as such put a lot of bodies into the box, this clip above however shows the threat that Ben Slimane posed due to his movement and athleticism to find the spaces in England’s rearguard.
All restarts for England appear to be heavily orchestrated, from the rotational movement of players on throw ins to the two-man free kick set ups that are designed to offset the oppositions defensive line. Anderton and Le Saux are comfortable set piece takers, so with a right and left foot on offer at each England set play they are a constant threat. In the video we see the double step over used a few times, designed to move the opponents defensive line and give attackers the opportunity to find a gap, something Alan Shearer was only too happy to do for the opening goal.
Second Half Analysis
Build Up Play
With Tunisia chasing a goal in the second half coach Kasperczak allowed the wingbacks more freedom to advance forward in moments of buildup, thus creating more passing opportunities as England simply dropped back and sat in a 532 defensive shape. Tunisia would continue to attack the space behind Anderton, with Clayton often finding opportunities to put attacking crosses into the box. Half time substitute Baya would offer more craft in central midfield, which we see from the clips came from crosses in central positions.
It could be argued that while England had less of the ball in the second half, they showed themselves to be more effective when they had the ball. We saw a lot more vertical ball movements in the second half from England’s midfielders (Up, back and through passing sequences) with Ince, Batty and Scholes all running beyond the forward they had initially passed into. This opened more space for whichever midfielder remained back, allowing them to receive a backward pass from the initial target and then switch the point of attack to the opposite side of the field.
With Anderton and Le Saux positioned slightly deeper in the second half, primarily to deal with the threat Tunisia posed, it placed more onus on Shearer and Sheringham to pull into wide areas and offer England width in attack. With each striker pulling wide to put more crosses into the box, this now afforded Scholes more space to work centrally which he used to his advantage for England’s second goal.
Defensively all three of England’s center backs were very solid, but the standout performer for me had to be Sol Campbell. By this stage in his career Campbell had accrued 16 England caps and was a regular for Tottenham Hotspur. Albeit he was playing as a center back in a 442 every week for his club, I felt he adapted to the role of an outside center back in a 3-5-2 very well, a role which placed far more emphasis on 1v1 defending and managing the players and space around him.
England’s captain lead from the front throughout the 90 minutes, offering himself as a focul point in build up and transition, but also offering a real threat in behind Tunisia’s back line through excellent movement to peel off his defender. Arguably still one of the best strikers in world football at the time, Shearer was a shining light for England and started the tournament with a good performance.
Scholes was arguably England’s best performer in the opening 45 minutes, getting on the end of crosses, dribbling through pressure and presenting a constant threat to Tunisia. In the second half his on ball involvement would drop, however his ability to find space in the final third remained dangerous and was best illustrated with his 2nd half goal.
Things to Consider
Michael Owen would make his senior England debut in this match, having featured four times previously in friendly matches. It was evident in his first attack that his explosive speed would offer England something different.
Foul Count & Discipline
While Tunisia were by no means angels in this game, committing continual professional fouls on Alan Shearer for example, England put in their fair share of meaty challenges also. Both Batty and Scholes were very fortunate to stay on the field for two challenges that by todays standards would see them cautioned at the very least.
Wide Area Deliveries from Open Play
While Anderton certainly offered a lot from dead balls in this game his crossing from open play left a lot to be desired. Beckham’s exclusion from the line up caused a stir among the English fanbase and media, therefore Anderton’s performance will no doubt lead to more calls for Beckham’s reinstatement against Romania in seven days time.
The Final Word
The pressure surrounding England matches in the 90s felt enormous, especially those that would open International tournament. The game carried an edge of tension that really never became warranted in my opinion, as England looked to gain control early in the match and never really lost it. The were more needless turn overs in possession than was expected of a side of England’s quality, but as opening games go this was a professional performance with something to build upon.
Defensively England looked assured with the trio of Southgate, Adams and Campbell, both in transition and during periods of Tunisia build up. The only slight concern would be how aggressive Southgate and Campbell were in leaving the back line to press the ball, at times Batty simply wasnt available to slip back in and allow Adams to cover wide areas, which may in future cause issues against sides with better movement up front.
In midfield Batty was safe in possession, as was Ince but with slightly more craft. Scholes did well in breaking the lines and getting into the box, therefore at this level England are well stocked in central creation. They also have options from the bench that remained unused, such as Merson and Beckham, however the only real question that remained unanswered in this game was dealing with opposition pace in midfield. While positionally Batty and Ince cover ground well, neither have the searing speed to recover quickly should England face a team with a competent attacking midfielder or striker that drops deep prior to the counter attack.
Shearer has cemented himself as one of the best players in European football at this time, so his goal will set him up for a strong tournament you would imagine. Sheringham did well to drop and create, but with Owen on the bench England clearly have pace to burn should they feel the need to stretch the game or get in behind an opponent who sits with a higher line than Tunisia.
On to Toulouse now for the next match against Romania on June 22nd.
You can read the original 1998 BBC match report from the BBC website archives by CLICKING HERE