Firstly, the numbers.
This was the first time England had scored more than four goals in a World Cup match, the last being the victorious final of 1966. This was also only the fifth time in history that a single team hit five in the first half of a match at football’s grandest tournament. Harry Kane then became the first England captain to score a hat-trick since Alan Shearer against Luxembourg in 1999, and only the third Three Lions player to do so at a World Cup.
The 6-1 win over Panama was, in no uncertain terms, a total hammering. Given the tense few days that preceded it, it should earn Gareth Southgate praise by the bucket load.
This has arguably been the most trying week in the job for England’s inexperienced boss. The hard work spent cultivating a positive vibe among the fans and the media had created calm, quiet optimism around the base camp in Repino. There have even been darts competitions between players and reporters.
Then came the ‘leak’. Photographs of a scrap of paper, apparently indicating Southgate’s planned line-up to face Panama, were published by certain outlets. It led to initial admonishing from the manager and Kyle Walker, prompted a social media backlash and had journalists arguing among themselves, the duty to report the news conflicting with a desire to stay on the team’s good side.
5 – This is only the fifth time in World Cup history that a team has scored 5+ goals in the first half of a match, with Germany vs Brazil in the 2014 semi-final the most recent occasion. Rout. #ENGPAN #ENG #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/dM69aHGaqh
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 24, 2018
It was a test Southgate passed with flying colours. “I don’t expect the media to be supporters of us in terms of the way they work,” he told reporters on Saturday in Nizhny Novgorod. “I know they want us to do well; that’s been clear throughout the tournament.
“There’s no drama for me about it. The picture the other day wasn’t even the team.”
He spoke with poise and plenty of self-deprecating humour. He defused the tension with a smattering of well-chosen words. Suddenly, the focus was back on the football match to come, and it was the best he has seen in his time in the job.
Panama were, admittedly, shocking. Their fans outnumbered England’s travelling support, buoyed by a largely decent showing in the 3-0 loss to Belgium, but this was a shambles. John Stones’ free header eight minutes in seemed to cause them to lose any and all faith in defending properly. They resorted to cheap fouls, grappling at set-pieces and a mismanaged pressing game. Eagle-eyed officials played their part, and a ruthless England did the rest.
Kane dispatched two almost identical penalties and Stones got himself another header. The dependence on set-pieces for goals was broken when Jesse Lingard combined with Raheem Sterling and bent a stunning strike into the top corner, keeping up his penchant for scoring only the most spectacular of goals. Kane got his hat-trick by blocking Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s shot into the net with his heel. ‘Football’s Coming Home’ blared out of the speakers for the sixth time.
3 – Harry Kane is only the third England player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup match, after Geoff Hurst in the 1966 final, and @GaryLineker vs Poland in 1986. Illustrious. #ENGPAN #ENG #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/KH50ZlnmZJ
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 24, 2018
It was easy for England; far, far easier than it will be against Belgium on matchday three. They conceded a cheap goal here, too, a slice of World Cup history for Panama. But they should not be criticised for facing up to a weaker side and laying them to waste in imperious fashion, sticking to a style the manager has worked hard to impose.
It’s unlikely England will win this World Cup. But if Southgate wanted the talk to be all about the team’s football, it is now.
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