England 3 Senegal 0
Some fans wish England would be more fluent and daring. Imagine the goalscoring records Gareth Southgate’s team might shatter if that happened. As it is, England’s cautious formations have produced 12 goals in four games, scored by eight different players — a measure of the variety of England’s attacking threats.
Marcus Rashford, who scored two in the previous game against Wales, only got on as a sub here, after England had dispatched the African champions in this second-round match within an hour.
Job done so far — but in next Saturday’s quarter final, the world champions France will be classes above any team England have yet faced here.
In the vast Al Bayt Stadium in the desert outside Doha, a troupe of Senegal fans behind one goal danced and drummed throughout, giving the match a rhythm it initially didn’t deserve.
England started poorly, with misguided back passes from first Harry Maguire and then Bukayo Saka gifting Senegal two good chances. Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford came to the rescue twice, storming out to impede Ismaïla Sarr, and later stopping Boulaye Dia’s shot. If England are this profligate on Saturday, they probably won’t get away with it against French forwards Kylian Mbappé and Olivier Giroud.
England’s man of the tournament so far has arguably been 19-year-old Jude Bellingham of Borussia Dortmund, who has displaced Kalvin Phillips in the only distinct change to the starting XI that got to the delayed final of Euro 2020 last year. A remarkably versatile player, Bellingham started the tournament as holding midfielder, then shone as a playmaker, and tonight often operated as an outside-left.
“I don’t think we could have predicted how quickly he would mature,” said Southgate afterwards. Bellingham’s runs and near-faultless passing exploited Senegal’s weakness down their right flank: their right-back, Youssouf Sabaly, is a reserve at Betis in Sevilla. In a lovely five-man move on 38 minutes, Bellingham surged down the wing and crossed low for Jordan Henderson, not a regular scorer, who slotted home. In a curious goal celebration, Henderson and Bellingham bumped foreheads.
At that, Senegal’s defensive organisation cracked. In the last seconds before halftime, Bellingham launched a counterattack with a masterful run out of defence and coolly held the ball until he could reach Phil Foden on that same left flank. Foden crossed instantly to Harry Kane, who fired home his first goal of this World Cup. Kane now has 52 for England — only one behind record-holder Wayne Rooney — but in fact is transforming from a goalscoring number 9 to playmaking number 10. He was deservedly named man of the match.
Foden was playing in place of Raheem Sterling, who was unavailable after his family in England had suffered an armed break-in at their home. “He’s flying back to England,” said Southgate.
In the second half Foden continued the tormenting of Sabaly, notching his second assist with a cross from the right that Saka flicked home. As usual, England finished a high proportion of their chances.
“Ruthless”, Kane called it. “Our errors were paid for in cash,” agreed Senegal’s coach Alou Cissé.
The last half-hour was a formality, with England using all five substitutes, until it was time for the fans’ favourite “Sweet Caroline” to ring out over the desert. England have still never lost to an African team.
Southgate knows that World Cups are won more by closed defences than prodigious forward lines, and he will be relieved that, after that shaky defensive start, England barely allowed Senegal another sniff at goal. It was England’s third straight clean sheet. Their only goals conceded here in Qatar have been two late ones against Iran after that game was already long since won.
Disposing of middling sides at tournaments has become routine for Southgate’s team — not something that could be said about any other England sides of recent memory. From 1968 through 2016, England won just six knockout games in big tournaments. Since 2018, Southgate’s men have won another six.
But they have consistently been outplayed by top-class, possession-hungry opponents in deciding games: by Belgium and Croatia at the last World Cup, and by Italy in the final of Euro 2020.
Against France their task will be to keep as much possession as possible, passing their way from the back, rather than giving the French the ball all the time and getting pushed back into their own penalty area, as happened in the previous defeats.
Foden and Rashford both have reason to hope they will start against France. Sterling has been one of Southgate’s stalwarts since he took over in 2016 and the manager rarely changes his side. But even if the winger were available on Saturday, he would be lucky to get his place back. England will probably shift from four at the back against Senegal to five against the French, with three centre backs and two full backs to try to counter Mbappé’s pace and brilliance. But the man from Bondy leads the World Cup’s scoring charts with five goals in four games.
This England generation is an experienced side at the peak of its cycle. It won’t have a better shot at winning a World Cup, and France rather than Senegal will be the measure of whether it is up to it. Southgate rightly called it “the biggest test we can face”.